Congressman Pete Olson

Representing the 22nd District of Texas

China's space program poses potential threat to United States

December 6, 2011

Rep. Pete Olson authored the following op/ed on the buildup of China’s space program and the impact on U.S. national security. It appeared in the Heritage Foundation’s blog, The Foundry on November 13, 2011.

On November 2nd, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) completed a critical milestone in its young, yet ambitious, space program. China’s unmanned Shenzhou 8, which launched on October 31, successfully completed an automated rendezvous and docking with their prototype space station module, Tiangong 1. This docking exercise is a critical development in China’s quest to launch and operate its own manned space station in Low-Earth Orbit. As China moves ahead with enhancing their space capabilities, the U.S. shuttle program has ended with no successor in place and an unclear future. We have no independent access to space for several years at the minimum as a result.

The reality is that China will likely have a fully operational space lab, and perhaps even a space station, orbiting Earth by 2020. Not ironically, that is the very same year the International Space Station (ISS) may be decommissioned. If that becomes a reality, China could host the only permanent human presence in space. This scenario poses a grave threat to American national security, not to mention to our stature as a world leader.

According to Chinese state-run media, CNSA has three goals for its space program. Phase 1 was the launch of a manned space vehicle to execute various space experiments. This phase was accomplished by the Shenzhou 5 and 6 missions which, occurred in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Phase 2 involves the launching of a Chinese space laboratory, as well as a docking mission between a manned space flight and the prototype for the Chinese space station. China has already completed one of the milestones of Phase 2, which was CNSA’s first extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk, in 2008. Phase 3 involves the operation of China’s full-size space station, scheduled for 2020.

While CNSA maintains that it is pursuing a vigorous space program for peaceful purposes, China’s space program is inherently a product of its military. Formed in the 1950s, China’s early space program was embedded in the Chinese military. Chinese space development efforts have long been linked with their development of missiles and nuclear weapons. The program rapidly expanded to include mid- and long-range ballistic missiles, as well as an atomic warhead. In the 1990's China’s space program was officially detached from the People’s Liberation Army, although the CNSA continues to have strong ties to the military.

China’s progress in space exploration is motivated by a number of factors, including the vital one of expanding military capabilities. China has demonstrated both a willingness and ability to deploy military resources into space. In 2007, its military successfully used a ground-based missile to hit and destroy one of its aging satellites in orbit. Chinese hackers are also suspected of interfering with U.S. satellites four times in 2007 and 2008 in an effort to test their vulnerabilities.

These incidents not only demonstrate China’s ability to target our satellites, but also their clear intent to use that ability. It would be folly for the U.S. to underestimate the threat posed by the growing capabilities of the Chinese space program.

Since the first Mercury flight, the U.S. human space flight program has been a source of pride and inspiration for our nation. NASA has been an important motivator in accelerating the technological and industrial capabilities that have ensured U.S. global dominance in space. The new threats America faces from China are a powerful reminder of why we must invest in human space exploration with a clear mission and national support. China understands that space is the ultimate high ground. America must remember this and increase our efforts to stay ahead of our adversaries, real and potential.

U.S. Representative Pete Olson (R – Texas) represents Texas’ 22nd District in Congress.