May 10, 2023

Tiangong-1: Another Sputnik for the U.S. to Respond To?

China marked an historic milestone in its space program when it launched and orbited its Tiagong-1 space module on September 29, 2011. The module, whose name means “heavenly place,” was launched by a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center located in China’s northwest desert area, otherwise known as the Gobi Desert. Coincidentally, the module was launched less than a week before the 54th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik-1.

Tiangong-1 is held out publicly to be the cornerstone of the technology and procedures for an independent space station to be put in place starting in 2020. The module’s mission will include a rendezvous and docking by three Shenzhou spacecraft, of which two will be manned. Beyond that China has made no public statements about its plans for Tiangong-1; however, given what is known about China’s space program some presumptions can be made.

It should be noted that the launch of Tiangong-1 is not part of a space race between the United States and China. As noted by Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, China has been interested in developing a space capability since 1949 with focus on space systems that would facilitate economic development, and only recently has its focus shifted to national security concerns. Thus, while China is rightfully waving the flag over its achievement and to some extent rubbing it in the United States’ face, Tiangong-1 and its successor missions do not represent a present or future space race with the United States.

Although much has been made of Tiangong-1′s scientific and technological goals, it is prudent to expect that the launch of the module and its successor missions have a military purpose in addition to its scientific functions. The likelihood of the Tiangong series of missions performing a military role is not without precedence. During the Shenzhou-7 manned mission, in addition to the first space-walk by Chinese taikonauts, Shenzhou-7 released a small micro-satellite registered as BX-1 in the official satellite catalog. The purpose of the BX-1 publicly released by the PRC was to photograph the Shenzhou-7 and its taikonauts from a distance and demonstrate the ability to inspect the capsule and conduct limited proximity operations. However, it has been concluded by some experts that the BX-1 could have been a test-bed for a co-orbital anti-satellite weapon or the test of a rudimentary satellite inspection capability. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the PLA would use the the Tiangong series of missions as an opportunity to test dual-use technology or perform military missions such as manned reconnaissance the likes of that intended for the United States proposed Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) and the former Soviet Union’s Almaz space station. This becomes more likely with China’s soft power organs posturing the Tiangong series of flights being performed for scientific purposes. This terminology is often proffered by China for activities which have a military purpose and in fact which China has used when publically touting their newly refurbished aircraft carrier.

Aside from Tiangong’s utility as a platform for China’s furthering of its space program, it also serves as a basis to expand China’s ability to build on its soft power and in turn its political and diplomatic clout. Even before the launch of Tiangong-1, China took the opportunity to again proclaim its long-used diplomatic position that China was committed to the peaceful use of outer space, and the fact that the launch of Tiangong-1 was broadcast live for the world to see lends credence to the supposition that China regards this achievement as a means to enhance its national prestige as well as its technical capabilitiest. Most notably, this achievement runs in stark contrast to the United States whose manned space program is no floundering with no certain goals for future after leading in the realm of outer space for over 50 years. This fact is not lost on China and with a vibrant, visible space program, China recognizes the opportunity to upstage the United States in terms of prestige in the area of manned space flight even if they publicly deny that is their intention.

As noted earlier, the launch of Tiangong-1 occurred almost 54 years to the date of the launch of Sputnik-1. The launch of former achieved many laudable scientific goals and even contributed unwittingly to customary international law regarding the free passage of space. However, perhaps the most significant accomplishment from the perspective of the Soviet Union was the reaction of the American public and members of the United States government that Sputnik-1 represented a clear and present threat to United States in terms of its security and leadership. This perception fueled the Soviet propaganda machine and spurred the United States into a full-fledged space race with the Soviet Union. While the launch of Tiangong-1 and China’s public plans may raise concern in light of the United States current manned-spaceflight predicament that China is gaining the lead over the United States, that concern is not the same as the panic that led to public outcries that fostered the seeds of the space race.

Still, concerns have been raised in Congress about China’s growing space capabilities and in at least one instance that growing space capability has been put forward as a reason to rush ahead with the enormous expenditure of building a heavy lift rocket without any tangible mission to utilize it. The answer to China’s growing capabilities in space is not to panic and take the nation into a space race with China, which China as noted before is not looking for; however, should U.S. space policy and strategy decide to engage China in a tit-for-tat competition in space, it will find that China, unlike the former Soviet Union, will not directly engage the United States but rather use the United States’ challenge to fuel its own propaganda by pointing out the rashness and folly of the United States’ approach to space in comparison to its own. Additionally, the answer to China’s growing space capabilities does not lie in cooperation with in outer space. China would only consider such cooperation if it stood to benefit technically and politically, notwithstanding that agreeing to cooperation would only bolster China’s soft power in terms of United States’ acquiescence to China’s growing space capabilities.

Given this, the question is not whether the United States should engage China in the realm of outer space, but rather how it should engage China. In that regard, Dean Cheng, Research Fellow for Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation outlined recommendations to policy makers in his recent web-memo “Five Myths About China’s Space Program” to prevent China from surpassing the United States’ preeminence in outer space.

In order to effectively compete with China in outer space, Mr. Cheng recommends that United States’ policymakers and strategists must recognize the significance of space to American power and security. Mr. Cheng states in his memo that a variety of U.S. interests are effected by space capabilities and without a strong space capability and the industry to support its space systems, the underpinning of American power will deteriorate.

Mr. Cheng goes on to advise that policymakers need to understand that China is not engaged with a space race with the United States. China is in a power competition with the United States with outer space as one of many arenas to play out that competition, and as long as the two nations are in competition, outer space will be a major setting for that competition. Because of the significance outer space plays in this competition, Mr. Cheng notes that China is unlikely to be swayed by diplomatic overtures regarding conduct in space or meetings with the heads of America’s civilian space program.

Finally, Mr. Cheng suggests that policymakers need to recognize the political significance of a space presence or the absence of such. According to Mr. Cheng, United States’ policymakers would be well advised to look at the significance of having a solid space capability through the eyes of China. Mr. Cheng notes that China understands that a strong space capability coupled with highly visible achievements serves a significant terrestrial purpose whether by advertising technical prowess or sending a strong political message to its allies and adversaries. Relinquishing the role of manned space flight to China or even the Russian Federation has a global impact beyond that of the space community.

In addition to the recommendations outlined by Mr. Cheng, U.S. policymakers would do well to coordinate official responses to China’s growing space capabilities both publicly and internally to minimize the propaganda and soft power value inured to China. Specifically, the United States should be proactive towards China’s achievements and not to publicly dismiss or otherwise denigrate China’s efforts. The United States should publicly assuage China’s cultural sense of honor and respond to China’s achievements not with threats or dismissive comments, but rather with a demeanor of congratulations deserving of their achievements. The approach of recognizing China’s accomplishments such a Tiangong-1 and its successor missions would serve to negate the propaganda value that China might otherwise find in a dismissive response that the United States might otherwise have. Out of the public eye; however, the United States should be calculating how China’s achievements affect the standing of the United States in terms of its outer space capabilities and hence its position in the scheme of the world competition between the two countries.

United States’ preeminence in space is seeing its most significant challenge since the launch of Sputnik-1 and the beginning of the space race with the former Soviet Union. The challenger to the United States’ preeminence this time takes a different view of the role of outer space capabilities and understands that preeminence in that arena will pay dividends in the grander competition it is engaged in. The advantage in outer space capabilities that the United States has enjoyed since winning the space race against the former Soviet Union can be lost simply if it chooses to let China take it. To that end, United States’ space policy and strategy would do well to resist the impulse to simply react to Chinese achievements in outer space and at the same time pursue policy and goals that will not only maintain its lead in outer space capabilities but augment them as well.


Space flight in service of science, China Daily, September 30, 2022

Brian Weeden, China’s BX-1 microsatellite: a litmus test for space weaponization, The Space Review, October 20, 2008.

Dean Cheng, “Five Myths About China’s Space Program”, The Heritage Foundation, September 29, 2022


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