The launch of the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft in western China last month marked another great leap forward for the nation’s space program and its ambition to send manned missions to the moon and, eventually, Mars. Yet more than national prestige is at stake: China is counting on its space program to pay huge economic dividends.
China is NASA’s biggest rival in space exploration with plans to land “taikonauts” on the moon by 2036 and Mars thereafter. Along the way, President Xi Jinping hopes the space missions will spawn a wave of Chinese innovation in robotics, aviation and artificial intelligence, among other leading 21st-century technologies.
China’s space program is generally shrouded in secrecy, yet Xi’s government is now reviewing a proposal by top researchers to triple investments into scientific missions, according to Wu Ji, director-general of the National Space Science Center. The hope is that advancements made while building new telescopes, monitoring Earth’s water cycles and improving satellite navigation will revive state-owned enterprises and inspire the startup of private ones.
“China has been relying on the knowledge discovered by others,” said Wu, who’s spearheading the effort to lobby for more space missions with possible economic spinoffs. “If China wants to rejuvenate the economy, it needs to put more resources into developing groundbreaking technologies.”
China’s ongoing five-year plan strives to “make original achievements” in fundamental sciences and “lead the development of cutting-edge space technology.” A central economic strategy calls for 70 percent of key technology components—such as semiconductors and software—to be produced domestically by 2025.
To get there, Wu and dozens of researchers asked the central government to boost investment into space science from the 4.7 billion yuan ($695 million) spent in 2011-2015 to at least 15.6 billion yuan in 2026-2030.
That would trail NASA’s space science budget of about $5.6 billion, but a decade ago China spent zero on that effort, Wu said. The government instead poured money into projects with political significance or immediate practicality: rockets, military satellites and vessels for manned flights.
It also developed weapons: In 2007, the nation tested an anti-satellite missile by blowing up a Chinese craft. Now, China is spending big on scientific endeavors, launching the world’s first quantum-communications satellite and a telescope to search for dark matter in the past year alone.
“Scientific space research is expensive and sees very little practical benefits in the short term,” Wu said.
The precise extent of China’s space spending isn’t known, but what’s clear is that some U.S.-based analysts are concerned that China is hitting the accelerator as NASA hits the brakes. NASA ended the space shuttle, abandoned plans to return to the moon and is only committed to the International Space Station until 2024.
China’s stated goals to build its own station, land on the dark side of the moon and put a rover on Mars—all by 2022—prompted U.S. congressmen to ask: “Are We Losing the Space Race to China?” The nation started manned missions in 2003 and launched two more taikonauts in Shenzhou 11.
“China’s more deliberate and comprehensive approach will open up opportunities for Beijing to derive important economic, political and diplomatic benefits from its space program,” Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told the committee Sept. 27.
Even though NASA already landed on the moon, giving China the chance to accomplish that while the U.S. focuses on manned flight to Mars in the 2030s may backfire, said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“China uses space to gain political advantage,” Lewis said. “While there are clearly activities related to science and research, the primary purpose for China is to demonstrate power.”
The initiatives come as China’s economy moderates after decades of supercharged growth. Gross domestic product expanded 6.7 percent during the first three quarters—heading for its slowest pace since 1990—and exports fell for a seventh month.
The return on assets for state-owned enterprises was an estimated 2.8 percent last year, compared with almost 11 percent for private-sector companies, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Xi pledged to move China away from the cheap labor-and-debt fueled export model. To generate momentum, local governments are deploying 3 trillion yuan to invest in biotechnology, internet and high-end manufacturing companies that can replace stumbling heavy industries.
China has 38 startups worth at least $1 billion, according to CBInsights’ “Unicorn List.” They include UBTECH Robotics Corp., genome researcher iCarbonX, online educator iTutorGroup and app developer Apus Group.
Xi wants that list to be longer. He told Communist Party underlings last month that internet and information-technology businesses should drive China’s economic growth, and he called for breakthroughs in high-performance computing, semiconductors, quantum communications and software operating systems.
“China has leapfrogged other countries in terms of technology development over the past 15 years,” said Vincent Chan, a Hong Kong-based managing director of Credit Suisse. “The potentially disruptive implications of China’s innovative drive should not be underestimated.”
Some entrepreneurs are inspired by Musk, even if they can’t have the same autonomy because the military controls space flight. Hong Kong-listed KuangChi Science Ltd. is developing an exoskeleton that increases strength, a jet pack so people can “fly like Iron Man” and a capsule to take tourists into space via a giant balloon.
“Commercial activity, invention, research and investment will be very hot in this area in the next five to 10 years,” founder Liu Ruopeng said.
Wu, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wants to inspire those efforts. The academy has championed space projects since the 1950s, when Mao Zedong decided to make China the third nation with a satellite in orbit.
In those early days, scientists did drawings on a cement floor and relied on candlelight to design prototypes for satellites and rockets.
Since 1970, China has launched more than 100 satellites for weather and disaster monitoring, communications and navigation. The first, Dongfanghong 1, broadcast into the cosmos an anthem written for Mao that called him the “Sun of the East.”
As China moves farther into the stars, it’s doing more to study them.
In September, it turned on the world’s largest radio telescope in Guizhou after 22 years of planning. The 500-meter-wide dish searches for radio waves emanating from far reaches of the galaxy—helping scientists learn more about cosmic phenomena and even listen for aliens.
Xi said the telescope, dubbed “China’s eye of heaven,” will fuel economic growth since the nation holds its intellectual-property rights, state-run Xinhua News Agency said.
“The development of space science is important for China,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, former director general of the European Space Agency. “Space is not only for governments and space fans anymore. It’s fully integrated in the economy.”
In 2020, China will launch a satellite to study the Earth’s water cycle by measuring soil moisture, ocean salinity and ocean surface evaporation. It’s one link in the Water Cycle Observation Mission, an effort with the U.S. and Europe to help forecast floods and droughts, and maintain food security, the academy said.
The nation also is developing the homegrown Beidou navigation network as an alternative to the U.S.-run Global Positioning System. China wants a constellation of 35 Beidou satellites covering the world by 2020, according to the nonprofit Colorado-based Space Foundation.
Beidou provides improved security against interference and interception for military users, and guides about 40,000 fishing boats in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and the vortex of international territorial disputes.
More than 30 countries use the Beidou system, according to the government.
“We are at the beginning,” Wu said. “But this is a great cause, and nothing should stop China from becoming a power in the space industry.”