The US and China are clearly involved in an economic and political rivalry here on Earth, and this competitiveness has seeped into its space research and progress race. The CNSA, inspite of being relatively new to the so called “space race”, has made excellent progress and is clearly proving its worth and asserting its dominance over space.
If things continue at the current pace, China might overtake NASA within a decade or two, in various facets related to space travel, research, observation and development. Let us take a closer look at both the institutions and their brand of progress, both in the recent and upcoming years.
Comparison of Launch Technology and Progress
On paper, NASA doesn’t really have any specific rockets designed for payload delivery into space by themselves. It has relied on others to do this, like launching international cooperative missions and by help of other countries (for example, together with Russia for building the International Space Station), or it has invested into private spaceflight companies for launching their satellites, like SpaceX, that does independent work and is not controlled directly by the government.
NASA is currently working on a high performance series rocket called the SLS (Space Launch System), that will be the main rocket system that will be used as part of the Artemis program, NASA’s future manned mission to the Moon.
China on the other hand, has one of the largest arsenals of rockets and launch vehicles compared to any space agency or institution. Its flagship Long March series has been very effective in delivering even heavier payloads to GTO and even beyond our orbit.
You can learn more about the Long March series rockets here. China definitely holds the most no. of satellite/rocket launches per year globally, and continues to develop its existing rocket technology to improve efficacy for the upcoming planned future missions.
Comparison of Efficiency of the Launch Technology
NASA was considered very much efficient and self-reliable back during the days of the Apollo project, with almost 100% success rate of their missions. But in the later decades, the reusable space shuttles were deemed so expensive and inefficient that they have almost been completely discarded in the current scenario.
Also, NASA has lost almost 40% of its shuttles to various launch disasters or failures, making them very unreliable compared to other options. NASA has also completely forgone the idea of creating reusable launch vehicles due to this, which is evident from their policy and technology behind the development of the SLS rockets that is still in progress.
Even though China has such a vast array of rockets, they are continuously working to refine their technology and improve subsequent generations. CNSA has maintained its cost effectiveness, even though a lot of concurrent data is not available on the cost to state for the latest generation of rockets, past data shows China to be meticulously efficient and ardent on hitting deadlines it commits to, and carry out its planned missions with great swiftness.
They have also been studying the launches by SpaceX and their attempts to build reusable class rockets that could land vertically, and have they themselves started working on it too. But still, all this does not excuse the administration from the fact that China has not always managed its rocket debris well, there have been multiple cases of damage to property and lives due to unprecedented rocket debris hitting their fields or homes in the vicinity. This only shows how much more the CNSA and the government prioritizes technological progress than the welfare of those affected.
Recent and Upcoming Space Projects of NASA and China
A brief overview of the on-going and upcoming projects and plans regarding space by the respective agencies are given below:-
- The James Webb Space Telescope, launched as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, (ongoing, launched December 2021)
- The Artemis Program, a crewed mission to the Moon, sending the first woman and person of colour to the surface of the Moon (planned, 2022-28 approx)
- Not many other recent major ventures in space by NASA, but the future plans seem promising.
- The Chang’e 4 landing on the far side of the Moon with rover, and Chang’e 5 returning with Moon samples in 2020
- Plans to launch Chang’e 6, 7, 8, and also establish an International Lunar Research Station as part of its manned mission by 2030. (You can learn more about the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program here.)
- The Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter and Zhurong rover, successful so far and also still in operation (ongoing, launched July 2020). (You can learn more about the China’s Mars Exploration Program Tianwen-1 here.)
- Future Manned Mars mission, planned to be executed right after the Lunar Exploration mission, scheduled to be completed by around 2033.
- The first independently owned and controlled major space station Tiangong, currently being assembled part by part in orbit. Core module of the station has already been launched April 2021. (You can learn more about the China’s Space Station Tiangong here.)
First to set up a base on Mars: NASA or CNSA?
China may very well be behind NASA on the current trip to the Moon, but it may win out on it race to Mars. Here is why:-
- NASA’s SLS rocket systems are being prepared currently with the Artemis mission and its lunar program in mind. Going beyond that threshold will take many more years of extensive testing, experiments, and experience itself.
- China already has many launch ready rocket systems firmly in place, and it has plenty of time to refine them to the next level, as they have planned with the Long March 9.
- China may succeed in its venture to create vertical launching reusable class rockets, and will increase cost efficiency and performance.
- China recently also succeeded in its experiments with the EAST, a fusion reactor prototype that is being dubbed as an “artificial sun” that could power a lot of projects in the future, including space travel.(You can learn more about China’s prototype artificial sun here.)
- NASA currently has no concrete plans to go to Mars even by 2030, but speculations say that the Artemis program, if successful, will be used as a stepping stone to plan their mission to Mars
- CNSA plans to send another probe right after the Tianwen-1 mission, that would bring back samples successfully from the red planet
- China has plans already in motion, to organise the said crewed mission to Mars, right after its Lunar mission, and has officially claimed to be completing this milestone by around 2033, and China is known to take its deadlines more seriously than NASA.
At the end of the day, the question still remains unanswered as to who will come out as the prominent space ruler in the coming future. NASA used to be the indisputable space giant in question since the ending of the cold war between USSR and USA, but now, China has emerged as one of the biggest competitors showing extremely high rate of increasing knowledge, technology, power, and dominance. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before China overtakes NASA in all major facets of space exploration and research, emerging as the major space ruler within then next 20 years.