Testimony of James Oberg: Senate Science, Technology, and Space Hearing: International Space Exploration Program


Given at a Science, Technology, and Space Hearing: International Space Exploration Program Tuesday, April 27 2004 - 3:30 PM - SR - 253

The Testimony of Mr. James Oberg, Aerospace Operations Consultant, Soaring Hawk Productions, Inc.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this subcommittee on the question of Chinese intentions regarding lunar exploration. Both in competition and cooperation, China and the United States will be mutually interacting in this arena for decades to come.

This statement will examine the recent Chinese manned space flight, Shenzhou-5, to examine what it can reveal about Chinese approaches to selecting space goals and developing space technology, particularly its practices regarding acquisition of foreign space technology and its exploitation of usable lessons from foreign space experience. The Chinese plan for evolution of the Shenzhou program and development of an independent orbital laboratory is becoming clear. Following this, the question of Chinese national goals in space, and expected benefits from space activities, will be addressed.

Then the issue of lunar activities can be considered in the context of known Chinese practices and official policies. A broad and aggressive program for unmanned lunar exploration can be discerned. In the context of high-spirited and enthusiastic press accounts of future Chinese space triumphs, the potential for even more ambitious lunar goals involving Chinese astronauts can also be balanced against predictable Chinese technical capabilities and national policy requirements.

The Flight of Shenzhou-5

On October 15, 2003, at the Jiuquan Space Center near the edge of the Gobi Desert in northern China, the spaceship Shenzhou 5 blasted off at a date and time that had leaked to the world in advance. The spacecraft -- its name means "divine vessel" in Chinese -- was nearly nine meters long and weighs almost eight metric tons, substantially bigger than the Russian Soyuz space vehicle still in use, and similar in size to NASA's planned Constellation spacecraft whose final design has not yet even been selected.

The first manned flight of the Shenzhou has already had profound political, social, and diplomatic echoes. In addition to garnering international prestige, China hopes that its human spaceflight program will stimulate advances in the country's aerospace, computer and electronics industries. Space successes will raise the attractiveness of exports and enhance the credibility of military power.

China's near-term space plans are quite clear: It will establish its own space station in Earth orbit. Within a decade, China's space activities may well surpass those of Russia and the European Space Agency. And if China becomes the most important space power after the U.S., an entirely new "space race" may begin.

China's Use of Foreign Space Technology A significant factor in China's success, and a major influence on its future space achievements, is the degree to which its program depends on foreign information. The manned Chinese spaceship used the same general architecture of both the Russian Soyuz and the American Apollo vehicles from the 1960s. The cabin for the astronauts, called a Command Module, lies between the section containing rockets, electrical power, and other supporting equipment (the Service Module) and a second inhabitable module, in front, to support the spacecraft's main function (for the Soviets, the Orbital Module, and for Apollo, the Lunar Module). So despite superficial resemblances and widespread news media allegations, the Shenzhou is in no way merely a copy of the Russian Soyuz - nor is it entirely independent of Russia's experience or American experience.

Its Service Module, for example, has four main engines, whereas Apollo's service module had only one, and Soyuz has one main and one backup engine. Also, Shenzhou's large solar arrays generate several times more electrical power than the Russian system. And unlike Soyuz, the Chinese orbital module carries its own solar panels and independent flight control system, allowing it to continue as a free-flying unmanned mini-laboratory long after the reentry module has brought the crew back to Earth.

On the other hand, one clear example of outright Chinese copying is in the cabin pressure suits, used to protect the astronauts in case of an air leak during flight (A much more sophisticated suit is used for spacewalks.) The Chinese needed a suit with similar functions, so after obtaining samples of Russia's Sokol design they copied it exactly, right down to the stitching and color scheme. Other hardware systems that are derived from foreign designs include the ship-to-ship docking mechanism and the escape system that can pull a spacecraft away from a malfunctioning booster during launching.

Chinese officials have made no secret of such technology transfers. A lengthy article on Chinese space plans appeared in the Xinhua News Agency's magazine Liaowang in 2002: "After China and Russia signed a space cooperation agreement in 1996, the two countries carried out very fruitful cooperation in docking system installations, model spaceships, flight control, and means of life support and other areas of manned space flight. Russia's experience in space technology development was and is of momentous significance as enlightenment to China."

The mention of docking systems is especially illuminating. Although Russia and the U.S. have used different types of docking mechanisms over the years to link spacecraft in orbit, photographs of Shenzhou indicate that the Chinese have chosen a Russian variant called the APAS-89. The device consists of a pressurized tunnel 80 centimeters in diameter surrounded by sloping metal petals that allow any two units of the same design to latch together. Originally developed by a US-Soviet team in 1973-1975 for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and perfected for use by Buran space shuttles visiting the Russian Mir space station [which never happened, although one visiting Soyuz vehicle was equipped with the system], the APAS-89 is now used to dock NASA's space shuttles to the International Space Station (ISS). Although China is primarily interested in docking its spacecraft with its own small space stations, the decision to employ the APAS-89 mechanism would allow Shenzhou to link with both the space shuttles and the ISS.

Regarding the escape system [a "tractor rocket" design developed by NASA and adopted by the Russians], launch vehicle manager Huang Chunping told a newspaper reporter about one particular difficulty in the design, the aerodynamic stabilization flaps. "This is the most difficult part," he explained. "We once wanted to inquire about it from Russian experts, but they set the price at $10 million. Finally we solved the problem on our own." This pattern (of studying previous work but then designing the actual flight hardware independently) was followed on most other Shenzhou systems, and it has already paid off.

What is more, China has launched four ocean-going ships to track its missiles and spacecraft. These Yuan Wang ("Long View") ships have been deployed in the Pacific Ocean to monitor military missile tests and in the Indian Ocean to control the maneuvering of satellites into geosynchronous orbit. The ships are sent into the South Atlantic, Indian and South Pacific Oceans to support the Shenzhou flights. The Russians used to have a similar fleet but scrapped it in the 1990s because of budget constraints. Rather than purchase the Russian ships, China built its own.

Because some of the critical ground-control functions for the Shenzhou's return to Earth must be performed while the craft is over the South Atlantic, China signed an agreement with the African nation of Namibia in 2000 to build a tracking station near the town of Swakopmund. Construction started in early 2001 and was completed by year's end. Five permanent residents occupy the facility, and the staff expands to 20 during missions. The site lies under the reentry path of the Shenzhou, and because the craft's orbit has a different inclination than the International Space Station's, the Namibian base could not be used to track flights returning from there. This suggests that despite the Shenzhou's compatible docking gear, the Chinese seem to have no near-term interest in visiting the ISS.

Long-Range Strategies and Goals

China's long-range strategy was laid out in a White Paper issued in 2000 by the Information Office of the State Council. It stated that the space industry is "an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy." And instead of developing a wide variety of aerospace technologies, China will focus on specific areas where it can match and then out-do the accomplishments of other nations.

Further, China would develop all the different classes of applications satellites that have proven so profitable and useful in other countries: weather satellites, communications satellites, navigation satellites, recoverable research satellites, and earth resources observation satellites. It also will launch small scientific research satellites. A unique and highly significant feature of the Chinese space plan is its tight control from the top. As described by space official Xu Fuxiang in February 2001, "China's various types of artificial satellites, in their research and manufacture, are all under unified national leadership..." that will "correctly select technological paths, strengthen advanced research, and constantly initiate technical advances. We must constantly select development paths where the technological leaps are the greatest." Strict funding constraints require selecting "limited goals and focus[ing] on developing the ... satellites urgently required by our country," and on determining which satellites "are most crucial to national development."

The Maoist-style "ideological idiom" for this is: "Concentrating superior forces to fight the tough battle and persisting in accomplishing something while putting some other things aside."

The value of tackling difficult space technology challenges was explicitly described in Xiandai Bingqi magazine (June 2000): "From a science & technology perspective, the experience of developing and testing a manned spacecraft will be more important to China's space effort than anything that their astronauts can actually accomplish on the new spacecraft. This is because it will raise levels in areas such as computers, space materials, manufacturing technology, electronic equipment, systems integration, and testing as well as being beneficial in the acquisition of experience in developing navigational, attitude control, propulsion, life support, and other important subsystems, all of which are vitally necessary to dual-use military/civilian projects."

The Next Steps

In 2002, Liaowang magazine described the development plan for the manned space program: "After it succeeds in manned space flight, China will very soon launch a cosmic experimental capsule capable of catering to astronauts short stays." This capsule is elsewhere described as "a laboratory with short-term human presence," to be followed later on by a space station designed for long-term stays. In January 2003, unnamed officials provided further background to Xinhua News Agency reporters: "As the next step, China will endeavor to achieve breakthroughs in docking technology for manned spacecraft and space vehicles, and will launch a [space station]. After that it will build a long-term manned space station to resolve problems related to large-scale space science experiments and applied technology and to make contributions to mankind's peaceful development of outer space."

In February 2004, Wang Yongzhi, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and identified as chief designer of the Chinese manned space program, told the Zhongguo Xinwen She news agency in Beijing that the Shenzhou-6 mission would carry two astronauts for a week-long mission. "Astronauts will have more opportunities for hands-on operation on board the Shenzhou-6," he stated. "The astronauts will directly operate relevant spaceship-borne instruments and equipment to carry out a series of in-space scientific experimental work." No date was given, but most Chinese sources indicate that early 2005 is most likely.

"When conducting space rendezvous and docking experiments in the past," he explained, "both the former USSR and the United States had to successively launch two spaceships in one experiment. At the time of devising a plan for China's space rendezvous and docking experiments in the future, we improved on the past achievements and considered making the Shenzhou spaceship's orbital capsule, left to continue moving in orbit, the target vehicle in space rendezvous and docking. When conducting a space rendezvous and docking experiment in the future, therefore, China will need to launch only one spaceship."

"This plan is feasible, economical, and faster" in its design, and he expects it to take four or five years to be implemented. Foreign experts consider this plan feasible and reasonable and give it excellent chances of success. On Chinese television, Wang added that following flights by Shenzhou-7 and Shenzhou-8 (perhaps in 2006-2007), China would launch "a space station of larger scale with greater experimental capacity." A photograph of what appears to be a mockup of this module has been released. It resembles the Soviet Salyut-6 space station (1977-1980), but with a more modern ship-to-ship docking mechanism modeled on Soviet designs now used by the ISS.

Chinese Interest in Lunar Exploration

In the enthusiasm surrounding the Shenzhou program, many Chinese scientists made bold promises to domestic journalists about ambitious future projects, especially the Moon. Many press comments are difficult to understand, and the problem of translation of unfamiliar technical nomenclature compels outside observers to be very cautious in interpreting them. For example, when Dr. Ouyang Ziyuan, identified as "chief scientist of the moon program", is quoted as saying "China is expected to complete its first exploration of the moon in 2010 and will establish a base on the moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole," great care must be taken in determining what - if anything - this really means for future space missions.

Still, even Western observers also expected major new Chinese space missions. "China intends to conduct a mission to circumnavigate the Moon in a similar manner as was carried out by Apollo-8 in 1968," noted the American engineering and analysis consulting company, the FUTRON Corporation, in its report, China and the Second Space Age, released the day of Yang's space launch. "This mission will apparently involve a modified Shenzhou spacecraft and will be launched around 2006," the report continued. And at a trade fair in Germany, spectacular dioramas showed Chinese astronauts driving lunar rovers on the Moon. But those exhibits seem to only be copies of US Apollo hardware with flags added. There is little if any credible evidence that such hardware is even being designed in China for actual human missions to the Moon.

According to Luan Enjie, chief of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), China's first lunar mission will be a small orbiting probe called "Chang'e" (the name of a moon fairy in an ancient Chinese fable). Pictures of the probe suggest it is to be based on the design of the Dong Feng Hong -3 communications satellite, which has already been launched into a 24-hour orbit facing China (the Cox Commission provided persuasive documentation that the original DFH-3 was heavily based on European space technology). This lunar probe is expected to reach the moon in 2007, on a recently-accelerated launch schedule.

Chinese press reports also describe widespread university research on lunar roving robots, and especially on the robot manipulators (the arm and hand) to be installed on them. According to an April 7, 2004 report in China's People's Daily, Luan said the lunar rover would carry the names of those institutions that take part in the vehicle's development.

The report continued that the lunar rover work was being "carried out under China's High Tech Research and Development Program involving nearly a dozen scientific research institutions." This work was initiated by Tsinghua University in 1999. The rover is to be able to handle a range of driving conditions and use sensors for automated driving around obstacles. Luan is quoted as saying he is "on the lookout for innovation and creativity in building the lunar rover."

Two years earlier, the Xinhua news agency (Jan 16, 2002) had stated that China's first space robotics institute has been set up in Beijing. Its Deputy Director, Liang Bin, said: "Breakthroughs have been made in many key technologies of space robots. If it is required by China's space plan, the space robot will be sent to space very soon."

That same year, Liu Hong, a professor at Harbin Polytechnical University, showed a four-fingered hand for use in space. Each finger had four joints, 96 pressure sensors, and 12 motors. "The robot may replace an astronaut to conduct some difficult and dangerous operations outside the space capsule."

Dr. Sun Zengqi, identified as Qinghua University's leading expert , is using virtual reality technology to overcome control problems caused by long time delays. Also, he is working on manipulators to handle equipment aboard China's first small space laboratories that will not be continuously manned. "The gap between China and [other] countries in space robot technology has been greatly narrowed," Sun said.

Tsinghua University is designing what they call "LunarNet". It would consists of a polar orbiter equipped with sixteen 28 kg hard-landers, to be released in equally spaced areas on two mutually perpendicular orbital planes. The landing system, probably using airbags, would ensure surviving a landing at speeds between 12 and 22 m/s. Each lander will carry a camera, temperature sensors, cosmic ray detectors, a penetrometer, an instrument for the measurement of soil magnetic properties and other instruments. The stations would use a relay satellite for earth comm.

There is also the "Lunar Rabbit" soft-lander. It would be a 330 kg probe costing as little as $30 million and would be launched on a geostationary transfer orbit from the Xichang space center. Insertion into a lunar transfer orbit will be carried out on the following day using the on board bipropellant engine. At the time of the third apogee the probe will be inserted in a 100 to 200 km high lunar orbit where it will split into two components. The first, apparently based on the Double Star scientific satellites, will carry out an orbital mission, using a CCD camera, an infrared camera, a radar altimeter and a radiometer. The second will head for a lunar landing. This lander, braked by a solid propellant engine, will carry only a camera and will test optimal control algorithms discussed in some length in Chinese literature. Once on the surface the lander will release a 60 sq. meters Chinese flag.

While it is plausible that many of these programs are merely engineering exercises to train students, the doctrine from the 2000 White Paper makes it clear that China cannot and will not waste any efforts in its space program. All activities are to be funded only if they contribute to an existing - if officially undisclosed - unified program. This suggests that these projects are not idle make-work, but are at least candidates for eventual official selection to actually fly.

These probes, and a long-range plan for an automated sample return mission by 2020, will not be direct copies of previous missions by Soviet and American spacecraft. Wu Ji, the Deputy Director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Center for Space Science and Applied Research , recently declared that Chinese Moon probes will aim at questions not addressed by previous missions. He stressed the importance of doing "something unique."

The Looming "Great Leap" In Spacelift Capability

The key to more ambitious Chinese moon plans - to the rover mission, for example, or even a fly-by of the moon by a manned spacecraft - is the development of a new and more powerful booster called the CZ-5. Comparable to the European Ariane-5 booster or the Russian Proton-M, it will not be a simple upgrade of previous vehicles in this series, where more power was obtained by adding side-mounted boosters, stretching the fuel tanks, and installing high-energy upper stages. Those incremental advances have reached their limits, and an entirely new design of large rocket sections and bigger engines must be developed over the next five years.

China has stated that it intends to develop this mighty rocket for launching larger applications satellites into 24-hour orbits, and for launching its small space station. The components are too large to move by rail to the existing inland launching sites, so they will be shipped by sea to an entirely new launch facility on Hainan Island, on China's southern flank.

This new launch vehicle is a major quantum-jump in the Long March family and presents very formidable engineering challenges. It will take tremendous efforts, and significant funding, and some luck as well, to make it work on the schedule announced in Beijing. And until the booster is operational, ambitious moon plans cannot be attempted.

Once the CZ-5 is man-rated - and we re talking about at least five years, probably more - a beefed-up Shenzhou vehicle could be launched to the Moon. Two different possible flight plans are available: a simple swing-by (as with Soviet Zond probes in 1967-1970) and a lunar orbital flight (as with Apollo-8 in 1968). The simpler variant could be carried out with a single CZ-5 launching; the orbital profile could require two launches.

At the present time, however, there is no hard evidence that the Chinese government has officially sanctioned such missions - nor is there any need for them to do so at this point, since much of the technology to realize such options is already under development for more near-term goals. Nevertheless, Chinese capabilities for human lunar missions - at least to orbiting it - can quite reasonably expected to become available in a timeframe similar to NASA's "Return to the Moon" strategy, and the option to fly such missions as an equal participant may prove to be irresistable to the Chinese government.

China vis- -vis the United States: Strengths and Weaknesses

A comparison between the Shenzhou spacecraft and its direct descendants, versus the still-undefined and undersigned US Constellation project (nee CTV, CERV, etc.) reveals a pattern of relative strengths and weaknesses of the two nations and their approaches to expanded lunar activity.

Both vehicles can carry 3 or more crew, are launched on expendable boosters, have launch-escape-systems, can rendezvous and dock in orbit, and return on dry land. Both promise to outstrip capabilities of the Russian Soyuz vehicle, just as Russia itself wants to replace it with the Kliper design (the Russians see this project funded by Europe and the US, in their dreams).

The United States spends $30 billion a year on space, the Chinese perhaps $2 billion. But the Chinese have made it clear they will not duplicate across-the-board all of the activities funded by the United States.

A major problem for China is that their top-down and tightly-focused space management strategy is extremely brittle, and vulnerable to unpleasant surprises and unpredicted constraints. This is because space technology often cross-fertilizes, and difficulties in one area find solutions in seemingly unrelated disciplines, in a manner that top level management is usually incapable of foreseeing. Although methodical and incremental approaches to programs such as Shenzhou have been successful, more advanced projects - particularly the CZ-5 booster - will require longer strides and may reveal the shortcomings of narrowly aimed management. That in turn may encourage more aggressive efforts to find the required technologies overseas.

Beyond mere technology acquisition, China has implemented an extremely effective policy of extracting all usable lessons from other countries space experiences. This is the fundamental issue of engineering judgment, the day-to-day decision-making that propels a program to success - or, if not done properly, to frustration and disaster. The Chinese have studied the Soviet, the American, the Japanese and European and other programs intently, with the explicit goal of learning from them. NASA's culture in recent years, on the other hand, has looked overwhelmingly arrogant towards any outside expertise (even, or especially, from other US agencies, and sometimes actually between different NASA centers). Worse, it has shown itself incapable of even remembering fundamental lessons (such as flight safety) that an earlier generation of NASA workers had paid a high price to learn - only to have it forgotten and eventually (hopefully) re-learned.

The demographics of the space teams in both countries also demonstrates a major difference that goes beyond mere financial resources. While space workers are equally happy to be at their jobs, the workforce in the Chinese program reflects the major build-up of the past decade and is predominantly young, and has been involved in major program development activities. NASA, as a mature civil service branch, has had relatively stable - some might even say moribund - staffing for decades. While there has been a steady flow of new hires, they have in large part been involved in maintaining existing programs, without much opportunity to learn by doing . Outside observers such as Dr. Howard McCurdy have voiced serious doubts that the current NASA culture is capable of sustaining an ambitious and expansive new program (late last year he testified how that could be fixed), but there is little doubt that the Chinese space workforce is, because they ve shown it.

The rationale for China investing substantial sums into expanded human space flight - space stations and even lunar sorties - remains unclear, but to a large degree they may be the same motivations that have already funded the Shenzhou program. If Shenzhou continues to be successful, internally popular, and helpful to Chinese economic, diplomatic, and military relations with other nations, then more ambitious projects with similar effects may justify their budgets too.

Weighing these factors, the future of lunar exploration - and China's role in it - is likely to be extremely interesting. While the motivations that fuelled the Space Race of the 1960's are largely absent - primarily the naked fear in the US that a world that accepted Soviet dominance in space would have many other consequences undesirable from a US point of view - there remain solid motives for international rivalry, for serious attempts at illicit technology transfer, and for activities that could diminish the world stature of US aerospace technology.

In metaphorical terms, China is now facing a steep road into the sky. It has shown it has the heart and the brains for this chosen path. Now the world must wait to see if it has the muscle and the stamina - and the wisdom. And the same question applies to the United States.

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