China launched its second lunar probe in late-September, with its mission being to find a landing site for a lunar rover expected to launch before 2013. In an e-mail interview, Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, discusses China's space program.
WPR: What is the status of China's space program?
Gregory Kulacki: China is more or less on schedule with their plans to complete a permanently occupied space station by 2020. The plan was first formulated in the mid-1980s and funded in the early 1990s. China is also on schedule to complete their robotic lunar exploration program, which aims to survey the lunar surface with orbiters, land a rover on the surface to collect and analyze samples, and eventually send a lander to collect lunar samples and return them to earth. The robotic lunar program was approved in the late-1990s and is scheduled to be completed by 2020. In addition to these two high-profile programs, China is building their own national positioning and timing satellite constellation, known as Compass, and is making steady improvements in their communications and earth-observation satellite constellations. According to the UCS satellite database, available online here, China now has 60 functioning satellites in orbit. Chinese press reports indicate that number could rise to 100 in the next several years.
WPR: What are the stated goals of the program, and what are the concerns it has raised abroad?
Kulacki: As with all space-faring nations, China's space programs have several goals. The most frequently discussed in the Chinese press are the presumed benefits to the Chinese economy. The human space flight and robotic lunar exploration programs are also intended to attract, motivate, retain and train a cadre of young aerospace engineers as well as to increase the interest of Chinese youth in studying science and math. In this regard both programs have been very successful. The concern abroad is that these programs have latent or actual military utility. That concern is, in my view, unfounded. The militarily significant advances in Chinese space capabilities can be found in their positioning and timing, communication and earth-observation satellite programs, as well as in dedicated military programs, such as the anti-satellite interceptor that destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite in January of 2007. The latter event created a huge cloud of debris that increased the debris-hazard for all other spacecraft operating in the orbital plane where the Chinese satellite was destroyed.