The concept of a space race is mostly discussed within the walls of a classroom, featuring the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. While the Soviet Union and the United States faced off for space glory, the Chinese government was also making attempts to enter the ring of the Cold War Space Race.
As most know the United States landed people on the moon first, while the United States was landing people on the moon the Chinese Ministry of Aerospace was only able to successfully send a couple of white mice to space aboard an experimental biological rocket. By the end of the Cold War in 1991, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) which formed following the split of the Chinese Ministry of Aerospace Industry in 1993 had successfully been able to send and retrieve their satellites.
The years after the Cold War is where the stories take a twist. The United States and Russia began to slow down their respective space programs to focus the large sums of money elsewhere. The Chinese, on the other hand, continued to fund their space program with the intention of dethroning the achievements made by the U.S and Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Within the decade, China had successfully sent its first unmanned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 1, with multiple others being sent before their landmark first piloted spaceflight which occurred in 2003. Since the achievement of a manned spaceflight, China has also accomplished its first lunar orbit, first landing on the moon as well as being the first to land on the dark side of the moon in 2019. What can be called the key achievement, that most threatens the throne of space superiority is the 2011 launch of the Chinese space station, which saw an addition in 2016 and is expected to be operational by 2022.
All these dates may seem confusing and drawn out but if you take a macro point of view it can be argued that the U.S and Soviet Union lead the technological advancements until the end of the Cold War. With the rapid advancements made by the CNSA in the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, the Chinese have made a large step in the direction of space superiority.
According to Pam Melroy, U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next deputy administrator of NASA, China’s intention is to alleviate the United States from space superiority. Melory, who is a former astronaut herself also made a point about the increased success of China’s space mission in the last decade but raises this as an area of concern for the United States. Melory singles out the lack of international trust regarding intellectual property theft and aggressive behaviour in space.
On a more positive note, in 2020 China launched the final Beidou satellite to complete their BeiDou Navigation Satellite System that will rival the United States Global Positioning System (GPS). According to Jefferies Financial Group Inc, the latest version of BeiDou is better: Its signals are accurate down to 0.41 metres versus GPS’s 0.5 metres on average. With the GPS losing its monopoly, the consumer is given access to a much more diverse navigational and mapping market.
The United States is once again on the hot seat with regards to its national status as leaders in the space race. With China motivated to capture space superiority and by focusing a larger portion of its resources towards its space endeavours, the likelihood of further space achievements being claimed by China is rapidly approaching reality.
Tim Chapman is an article writer for the Antarctic Institute of Canada and a recent graduate from the University of Alberta with a BA in History; John Christy Johnson is a research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada and an MD/MSc biomedical engineering candidate at the University of Alberta, Peter Anto Johnson, MSc is a research program officer at the Antarctic Institute of Canada and Austin A. Mardon, CM, PhD, FRSC is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, director of the Antarctic Institute of Canada, an Order of Canada member, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the International Academy of Astronautics headquartered in Paris, France.