Are China and the USSR Equivalent Opponents to the US in Space?

The Shenzhou-9 crew in a simulator during training. Credit: Xinhua news agency / Qin Xian’an

Last week, China’s Shenzhou 9 landed after a successful mission that included the nation’s first docking with its Tiangong 1 prototype space station. The rapid development of its space program suggests that China is poised to become a powerful new player in space, and this is giving rise to speculation that the nation could turn out to be enough of a threat to the United States to spark a new space race. Perhaps some of these reactions are rooted in the similarities between China’s space program and the Soviet space program of the 1960s. Both are built on a similar model that’s very different from NASA.

To undertake any major program in space, there are hurdles to overcome. Before going the Moon, Mars, or building a space station, any program needs to master the basics of orbital flight, rendezvous, docking, long-duration missions, and EVA. These are all the building blocks for successful space exploration.

The view from Shenzhou 9 just after taikonaut Wang manually docked with Tiangong 1 on June 24, 2012. Credit: CNTV/CCTV

China seems to be crossing off these goals systematically with every mission. In 2003 it became the third nation to launch its own people into orbit; Yang Limei completed 14 orbits aboard Shenzhou 5 on October 15. Shenzhou 6 saw the first day-long mission and the first two-man crew, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng. Shenzhou 7 sent Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming, and Jing Haipeng into orbit. Zhigang crossed off another goal for China on the mission by performing the nation’s first EVA. Last month’s Shenzhou 9 crossed first docking off the list and first woman in space. Liu Yang joined male counterparts Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang on the mission.

The Soviet program followed a similarly rapid progression in the 1960s with a major goal crossed off the list with every mission. Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961 when he completed one orbit aboard Vostok 1. Gherman Titov followed in Vostok 2 spending a full day in space. Andrian Nikolayev in Vostok 3 and Pavel Popovich in 4 were the first men to fly in space simultaneously and rendezvous in orbit. Valery Bykovsky in Vostok 5 and the first woman Valentina Tereshkova in Vostok 6 also flew together.  Voskhod 1 saw the first three-man crew with Vladimir Komarov, Konstantin Feoktistov, and Boris Yegorov. Voskhod 2 sent Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov into orbit where the latter made history’s first EVA.

A Joint History

Chairman Mao and former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during happier times between China and the USSR in 1958. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

China and Russia have a joint history in space. China’s space program, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), has roots in a Cold War a partnership with the Soviet Union. In 1949, Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev entered into the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Under this treaty, the USSR gave China access to its rockets. The first Chinese missile was largely a reverse engineered Soviet R-2 rocket. The partnership ended in 1960 but China still used its knowledge of rockets gained from the USSR to launch its first satellite a decade later.

It’s not just in rockets that China’s history with the USSR can be seen. The Shenzhou spacecraft borrows a lot of design from the Soyuz. It’s not a copy, but the layout, reentry module, and many of the technical solutions are the same between Shenzhou and Soyuz. This Chinese craft is about thirteen percent larger than the Soviet-era one.

Another interesting parallel between China and the Soviet Union in terms of spacecraft is that each nation achieved major goals quickly using a variation of its original vehicle. The Soviet Vostok was hollowed out and repurposed into the Voskhod and each Chinese feat has been accomplished in the same basic Shenzhou spacecraft. This stands in stark contrast with NASA. For the US agency, each spacecraft was designed to meet certain goals and was built with the lessons learn from previous missions in mind.

Stunts Missions

Stills of Alexei Leonov’s EVA. Credit: NASA/Great Images in NASA Collection

Both China and the Soviet Union have been suspected of launching missions for political rather than scientific gain. This isn’t to say the flights haven’t been based on solid science and engineering, but the reason behind the rapid success has been called into question.

Though called a rendezvous by the USSR, the meeting of Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 in orbit was achieved though perfectly timed launches rather than pilot skill. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7’s rendezvous, in contrast, was all thanks to pilot skill. Like the rendezvous, the Soviet multi crew flights seem makeshift. Voskhod 1 held three men while Voskhod 2 only held two. That’s because three men couldn’t in the spacecraft wearing spacesuits. Since Leonov was opening the hatch on Voskhod 2, the extra room in the spacecraft was reserved for his suit.

The strange situation surrounding the first women in space is another similarity linking the Chinese and Soviet space programs. Soviet Chief Designer Sergei Korolev first suggested the country launch a woman. It was a propaganda move, one that would promote the idea that the Soviet system valued its women equally to its men. The Central Committee of the Communist Party approved the suggestion and started testing six women. Tereshkova was selected more for her simple background than her skills as a parachutist; she finished second in her cosmonaut class but came to join the space program after rising through the communist system. She was a great success story. Yang’s story is similar. Chosen from an all-female taikonaut class, she is an accomplished military pilot from a very humble family.

Recipe for Success?

Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, the men often credited with killing NASA in the late 1960s for putting an end to the agency’s heavy lift capability. Credit: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi, File

China might have the recipe for success in space. Like the Soviet Union’s early successes such as launching the dog Laika into orbit just a month after Sputnik, the Chinese space program has the benefit of a single party Communist system behind it. One leader calls the shots, like landing a man on the Moon for example, and without a regular election cycle there are fewer hurdles that could stop progress towards that goal. The downside is that a change in power can completely upend the country’s approach to space.

In China’s case, the country has the manpower and funding to back up those kinds of goals. It also has the might of the country’s millions strong military – China’s space program is run by the People’s Liberation Army.

America has the opposite arrangement. Though built on a military-style foundation, NASA has always been a civilian agency with the necessary bureaucratic procedures. While big goals like a Moon landing come from the president, the agency needs congressional approval and with regular election cycles it’s hard for NASA to stick with a big goal in space. This had led to the space agency becoming a political volleyball. Presidential hopefuls use NASA to gain votes with promises of big missions and job creation but the programs don’t always come to fruition.

An artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Powered by 27 engines at launch, it’s slated to be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built with the exception of the Saturn V. Credit: SpaceX

But there’s a new player in space that could be instrumental in helping America if it suddenly found itself racing China to the Moon or Mars: SpaceX. Though just ten years old, the company has already demonstrated its technology with successful orbital flights and the recent rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station. Not to mention the company’s founder Elon Musk has said that he started a spaceflight company so he could get to Mars. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which provides about half the power of the Saturn V, could get payloads and possibly humans to destinations beyond Earth orbit.

Most importantly, SpaceX can build its giant rockets with or without congressional approval. Its freedom from bureaucratic processes and overall streamlined approach to spaceflight could give the US the necessary technology for a space race. The decision would then fall to NASA whether or not it would purchase the rocket for a planetary mission.

As for SpaceX mounting a mission to the Moon or Mars on its own, that could be unlikely since going to Mars wouldn’t necessarily promise a good return on investment for the company. Of course, there are business models seeking to exploit a mission to Mars for profit. Mars One, for example, is hoping to establish a manned base on Mars by 2023. The mission will be funded by viewers; the company plans to turn the process into “the biggest media event ever!” (On a personal note, though this may be one of the most feasible ways of funding a mission to Mars I would hate to see the endeavour turned into some tawdry reality series.

Deke Slayton and Leonov in orbit during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project flight in 1975: the symbolic end of the (first?) space race. Credit: NASA

This is all, of course, purely speculative. I can’t say what might come from China’s recent  success, whether the US will adopt a “been there done that” mentality to a lunar program, or how SpaceX’s role in space might change. Of course, the current world climate is different than it was a half century ago, but history does suggest that a communist system is beneficial to advances in space. It’s something we ought not ignore.


Update: A lot of people are reacting to this article with questions about why China and the US can’t get along in space and why we assume there is a competition at all. Surely we ought to move beyond petty jealousy and pursue scientific endeavours without competition. That would be great, but it’s much easier said than done. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating that the United States has denied China access to the ISS, which is one factor behind the nation’s decision to build its own station. Ideologically and politically, China and the US are too different to just start a joint venture in space. There’s a separation between these nations at the basest level. I think I highlighted enough parallels about the politics behind each country’s space program to show that China is more similar to the USSR (which is not modern day Russia) than either is to the United States.

Suggested Reading:

Letter from Member of Congress Frank Wolf to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

PLA and U.S. Arms Racing in the Western Pacific.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Politics and Space:



  • Jasper says:

    It is amazing how China takes leaps forward with every new launch. But of course they don’t have to re-invent the wheel and lots of technical information on orbital mechanics and rocketry in general is freely available. I do not think they “modified” the Shenzou to fit two and later three men inside but that it was designed to fit three all along. They only improved the design as they went along with the experiences from the previous flight. Vostok, in fact was indeed thoroughly changed to fit more people inside – at the cost of risking lives. The same goes for Soyuz in the early days.
    However, China does its best and succeeds very well. At the start of the building of the ISS China asked if they could join but this was vetoed by the US. Personally I think this was a mistake. Space shouldn’t be a place for fighting over differences in political opinions. Peaceful cooperation would take us to the other planets much sooner. Anyway, China now does it on its own – but they use the internationally designed docking mechanisms, so I presume their ships are able to dock to the ISS’ PMA ports.

    SpaceX is the biggest player on the “new generation market”, Orbital is a good second one. For the time being they still serve NASA and the US, but I would not be surprised to see some expeditions being organised by private companies or maybe even persons, just like some of the Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century. No one needs to have the state’s permission to launch once the rocket’s been declared safe. By the way, I too think that Mars-one idea, thought up by some of my fellow countrymen, is not the way to go. No one-way tickets yet. I’d rather see one-year expeditions. There is yet too much we don’t know to just send people to Mars for good.

  • Amy, thanks for the analysis. I am not yet convinced that China will use space to dominate Earth. Both the US and USSR tried and abandoned military manned spaceflight. A base on the Moon is three days from Earth, in broad view, hardly an effective military scenario.
    You correctly qualified the “rendezvous” claim for Vostoks 3, 4, 5 and 6. They were inserted into orbit in proximity appropriate to commence rendezvous, but could not maneuver to execute rendezvous.
    And of course you typed Vostok 2 but meant Voskhod 2.
    Thanks again for an interesting post.

  • Pablo says:

    We should be happy that SpaceX and the Chinese finally got into space: A little competition is a healthy thing and it will likely serve to make everyone else work harder and better.

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:


    I don’t think NASA was ‘killed’ due to missing HLVs. As the MIRs, ISS, Tiangong and commercials LVs show, a 20 mt lift capability was sufficient and the 20 – 50 mt range is the most economic range for LVs assembling large structures such as interplanetary missions with current technology.

    Apollo and Orion/NERVA would have gotten us there faster, but the political forces were not aligned with “large investment, large gains”. They seldom are.

    But, a few nitpicks:

    An artist’s concept of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Powered by 27 engines at launch, it’s slated to be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built with the exception of the Saturn V.

    That merit goes to Energia, that could theoretically lift 100 mt to LEO.

    FH, if it succeeds and is used to capacity, will be the LV that has lifted most mass with the exception of the Saturn V.

    history does suggest that a communist system is beneficial to advances in space.

    Only by name. Neither the dictatorship of yesterday’s Russia nor the mixed economy of today’s China is communism in the idealized political and economical sense.

    The problem with non-democracies are that anything can fill a gap. More to the point, this is where the analogy breaks down. The political forces that Cold War Russia and Mild Peace China labor under are different.

  • James Davis Nicoll says:

    There’s a separation between these nations at the basest level.

    One that doesn’t seem to prevent economic connections on a fairly intimate level or trade going back centuries. Or a long tradition of immigration from China to the US (immigration which was from time to time complicated by people making “separation on the basest level” style arguments. Who can forget such classic “separation on the basest level” moments as the Rock Spring Massacre, the Chinese massacre of 1871or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882?).

    Nice effort but on balance I will have to give Phil Plait the edge on trying to stir up support for the US space program by appealing to a combination of Cold War fears and old time Yellow Menace paranoia.

  • simplicio says:

    The Simpsons, one of the most successful TV shows ever, has grossed something like 12 billion dollars over its 23 year run. That includes movies, merchandising, syndication, etc.

    The ISS, a space mission which is much less complex and difficult then a Mars mission would be, will have cost something like 100 billion over its lifetime.

    Mars One is a scam.

  • Nathaniel says:

    simplicio: did the ISS *have* to cost one hundred billion dollars? Not saying Mars One isn’t a scam, I don’t know either way — but to think that it is a scam simply because the ISS has been horrendously expensive doesn’t work.

  • simplicio says:

    Nathaniel: I was just using the ISS as an example of the fact that space is intrinsically expensive. It costs an order of magnitude more to run even a very limited manned space project then even the most successful TV show is like to raise over its entire run. The Apollo program cost something like 170 billion (2005 dollars). Development of the Space Shuttle (that is, before the cost of actually launching it) cost something north of 60 billion.

    One can argue that space programs could cost less if they were run more efficiently. But even if that’s true, an extreme optimist might hope for savings in the range of a factor of two. To fund a Mars mission on a TV budget, you’d need to make it something like twenty-times cheaper then other space missions.

    • Nathaniel says:

      I agree. Space is intrinsically expensive. Where I disagree is that it always has to be extremely expensive. There’s more to pushing down cost than just being more efficient. Until we get much more extensive orbital and lunar infrastructure, doing anything in orbit or beyond is going to be expensive because we keep doing things the same way.

      • simplicio says:

        Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen by 2023, which is the putative Mars One timeline.

        • Nathaniel says:

          You may be right, but we’ll get there eventually — and perhaps Mars One will do what so many other entities have done and push their launch date back, or increase their proposed costs.

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