China’s Ambitious Space Programme

17 July 2015

By Louis Brennan, Professor in Business Studies

Already, it has managed to land a rover on the Moon and to return an unmanned spacecraft from orbiting the Moon as part of its preparation for an eventual manned landing. It also aims to have a manned space station operational by 2020.

China is a relatively new actor among the traditional space powers, the Soviet Union and the United States. The quest to conquer space was driven from the middle of the 20th century by the rivalry between them. National pride was inextricably linked to the early achievements of getting a man into space and landing on the Moon.

Yet amid that competitive rivalry and even prior to the end of the Cold War, the competing superpowers had begun to collaborate. The launch of the MIR space station in February 1986 that preceded the development of the International Space Station in the 1990s represented a notable shift from fierce rivalry to global collaboration. And that collaboration between the two former rivals has continued uninterrupted until very recently.

An array of other actors has gained prominence in space endeavors in recent decades. These have included the European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, and a number of other states including Brazil, China, India, Iran and Japan.

China has already achieved rapid success and has more long-term plans for deeper venturing into space including to Mars.

India's space related activities are notably due to its low cost prowess in achieving its space related goals as demonstrated in its recent successful mission to send a craft to orbit around Mars.

At the same time, the two dominant states have over recent decades reduced substantially their national space budgets. For example, in the case of the U.S., space related government expenditure has reportedly declined from a high of 4.5% during the Apollo era to below 0.5% today.

However, success in space remains a major source of national prestige, pride and celebration. This was very evident to me some years ago, when I was dining one night in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. The arrival of the first Malaysian astronaut and visitor to the International Space Station Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor generated an air of celebratory excitement and pride among the clientele and he was mobbed as a celebrity.

That sense of national achievement has also been evident in the feting of China's taikonauts and in the case of India's success in space.

The continuing allure and mystique of space was dramatically demonstrated with the Mars One Foundation reportedly receiving some 200,000 applications from 140 countries for its proposed one way mission to Mars.

Likewise, there are examples of firms seeking to promote their brands by leveraging an association with space. This has been most notably the case with Unilever's Axe brand promoting its Apollo line with a global contest for spaceflights provided by the Space Expedition Corporation.

As the commitment of the former superpowers to space has waned, recent years have seen the participation of private actors in space related activity and the emergence of the business of space. During the 1990s, the commercial space industry started to flourish and ties to the military lessened. In particular, the space market has expanded into new niche sectors -- space tourism and travel, mining of resources, manufacturing opportunities, satellite technology -- representing a shift towards privatization of the sphere. We also have super-empowered individuals -- the inventors and entrepreneurs driving this commerce.

This new millennium is an important time in the history of space, not just for science, but in the opportunities for business enterprise and commercialization.

Increasingly, entrepreneurs and other private entities not only undertake activities previously carried out by governments and its agencies but also start to venture into previously unexplored and unexploited opportunities in space.

SpaceX is already a contractor for NASA, supplying the International Space Station. It was successful in getting its first commercial satellite delivery off the ground using its Falcon 9 rocket in December 2013 and is making progress towards reusing its launch rockets.

This new millennium is an important time in the history of space, not just for science, but in the opportunities for business enterprise and commercialization.

Increasingly, entrepreneurs and other private entities not only undertake activities previously carried out by governments and its agencies but also start to venture into previously unexplored and unexploited opportunities in space.

Such an achievement would be a game changer for the business of space as it would reduce significantly the costs.

A plethora of new space companies offering a diverse range of services have emerged that include suborbital hops, orbital flights and hotels, lunar tourism and satellite services. Space endeavors are seen as the next big business in Silicon Valley with companies such as Google investing in them.

The establishment of permanently manned space stations in outer space and the vision of establishing Lunar and Martian colonies have been embraced by private entrants such as Bas Lansdorp of Mars One and Elon Musk of SpaceX.

While space exploration is consistent with humanity's pioneering history and offers commercial opportunities particularly arising from reusability, miniaturization and economies of scale, it is today arguably more than an opportunity -- it is a necessity.

Stephen Hawking has asserted that if the human species is to continue beyond the next 100 years, its future is in space. Elon Musk of SpaceX has posited the goal of establishing ourselves as a multi-planetary species.

If the vision of humanizing space is to become a reality, it requires research and development, innovation and risk-taking. Moreover, it becomes an imperative to introduce innovative business models.

When Lans Lansdorp started to conceive the idea of colonizing Mars, he saw as his most daunting challenge the development of the business model. He told the New York Times: "All the technology we need exists already -- or nearly exists, I just couldn't figure out how to finance it."

In today's world, the financing of space business is quite different from that of 1957. Private actors are beginning to invest in space and some wealthy individuals with an established record of success in other business have already established enterprises with space related missions.

Rich individuals are paying for their tickets to travel into space, while national governments face severe constraints on their spending policies.

Nonetheless, the role of the state will continue to be an integral part of space endeavors, not least given the military and intelligence implications of space and the emergence of state actors such as China with its lofty space ambitions.

Future space endeavors will be driven by a mix of state actors, corporations and individuals. Although space continues to be risky (as we recently experienced with the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two), the combination of humankind's innate urge to explore, the vast opportunities that space offers and terrestrial imperatives will see a continued growth in space actors and activities.

This article was originally published on CNN.com

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