Will China Surpass the U.S. in Space by 2020?

The crew of Shenzhou-10 after 15 days in space. (Credit: CNSA)
The crew of Shenzhou-10 after 15 days in space. (Credit: CNSA)

Today marks the 10th anniversary of China’s first manned spaceflight, an occasion that has resulted in some soul searching over the Middle Kingdom’s significant progress in space and whether it is poised to take the lead from the United States in the decade ahead. The anniversary comes as NASA is all but shutdown due to a budget impasse in Washington.

Former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, just back from the International Astronautic Congress in Beijing, sees a perfect storm brewing between China’s ascent and budget restrictions on America’s space program.Writing in Space.com, Chiao sketched out a scenario where China surpasses the U.S. in space in about seven years.

NASA is so limited by budget cuts that it will be unable to do much human exploration beyond the International Space Station (ISS), which is in low Earth orbit. Efforts to extend ISS operations beyond 2020 are facing limitations on the space agency’s budgets and the desire of international partners to do something else rather than maintain an aging facility.

Meanwhile, China has plans to complete a multi-module, Mir-class space station by 2020 and is actively courting international partners to participate in it. Many of America’s partners on ISS see this as a less expensive option than continuing with ISS, he said.

“This sets up the perfect baton pass,” Chiao writes. “America, already on the decline after the retirement of the space shuttle (now only Russia and China can launch astronauts into space), will on the way down hand over the leadership position of human spaceflight to the Chinese.”

His answer to this problem is to heed the advice of the Russians, Europeans and Canadians in bringing China into a U.S.-led international partnership to pursue space exploration in low-Earth orbit and beyond.


“There are political and technical reasons that having China as a partner could be a win-win-win for all,” Chiao writes. “However, certain members of the U.S. Congress are dedicated to keeping China out, dooming the United States to continue its decline in human spaceflight.”

However, even if Congress  could be convinced, the time may have passed for such an initiative.

“The problem is, it may already be too late. China has a clear path and is moving forward. They have the perfect setup to take over the lead, enabled and propelled by the actions of the Congress. Why would they want to work with the U.S. now?” he added.

  • dr

    China may surpass NASA’s HSF programme by 2020, but I can’t see how they can even catch up with Newspace, when you consider that companies like Spacex are ahead of the Chinese in terms of price performance and are pulling away.
    By the mid 2020’s I can imagine that the amount of revenue being generated by Newspace far exceeds the budgets of NASA or the Chinese space programme.
    Mr Chiao writes as if he is on an Oldspace payroll. The above article is written along the same lines as

  • Dennis Stolwijk

    This isn’t about being a cheap service provider, that is not the core of what the Chinese are about anyway. They are all about national prestige and presence in space! Space stations, lunar landings, etc. That kind of stuff!

    SpaceX is a service provider! Surely they have big plans, but for the forseeable future they won’t be doing much more than launching sats and Dragons!

  • DBC

    Unless we’re talking pollution or sweatshop labor, my money is on the US.
    Although hang on a second…. Doesn’t SpaceX have a lock on sweatshop labor?


  • mfck

    It really depends on who foresees, dude. And, as a matter of fact, being a “cheap service provider” is more beneficial to the economy and science than prestige or “presence”… The Western Space prestige was earned long ago and used fully. We are past it. Past the show offs. What we strive for is Industry in the orbit, not a Mir-sized “presence” of “prestige”.

    And yes, the Chinese will do service providing, and yea, it will be cheap. Musk knows it.

  • DBC

    I would say “reliable service provider” is the most beneficial for science and the economy.

    This is probably an apples to oranges comparison, but I doubt if I would go to a car dealer and buy a Chinese brand over a Tesla, regardless of how much cheaper the Chinese brand was.

  • Robert Horning

    It isn’t hard to surpass a human spaceflight program that doesn’t even exist at the moment besides an astronauts office which uses equipment made by a competitor nation. The fact that China is making its own equipment means they have already passed anything NASA is currently doing.

    There certainly are no concrete plans for NASA to do anything other than spend another decade aboard the ISS. Lots of talk for sure, but I haven’t seen any congressional appropriations or a major Apollo kind of systematic program that is building up for even a “flags and footprints” kind of mission.

    As to what private spaceflight participants might be doing in space, I really can’t say. I’m optimistic that orbital deliveries will get in the $500 per kg range or cheaper, which is certainly going to open up a whole bunch of interesting possibilities. Well, assuming that private individuals are even going to be permitted to travel anywhere other than the ISS. It certainly shouldn’t be assumed that if the cash is at hand and people have the desire to travel into space to exotic destinations like the far side of the Moon or Mars that permits will be issued.

  • DougSpace

    It really depends upon if SpaceX reaches that mysterious tipping point where ticket prices for tourists gets low enough where it starts a virtuous cycle of ever lowering prices and increasing numbers of tourists. When that point is crossed, there’s no looking back.

    In the meanwhile, if the current public-private programs continue with a transition to helping companies develop in-space craft and lunar landers, then it will be a very interesting situation where it is the Chinese versus US commercial companies. But the economics make it such that those companies can’t do it on their own right now but need a period of NASA support.

    I think that international collaboration BLEO is generally a bad idea because, based upon the ISS experience, I would expect such collaboration to be expensive, last decades, and not result in a sustainable situation. It’s time that we develop an in-space transportation infrastructure to lower costs.

  • Mader Levap

    Omission of commercial space is very obvious and for sure deliberate. It would not fit into bleak image painted here. Therefore, these claims are doubful.

  • windbourne

    If we can get members of congress like wolf, shelby, coffman, Hatch, Lee, etc. to either leave, or nullify their powers, THEN US will be OK.
    NASA is headed in the right direction by pushing private space and working with Bigelow. multiple human launch combined with BA is the key to getting our prices low. With BA putting up a space station every couple of years in different locations, it allows for loads of constant launch services. There is little doubt that a number of small nations will pay to go up on a space station, but even more, would pay big to be on the moon.
    If NASA is allowed to follow the path that they want, then they will help private space go to LEO, the Moon, and Mars.
    Otherwise, if those ppl up there and their comrades win out, then the west is toast and China will own it all.

  • savuporo

    Betteridge’s law of headlines

  • Jim

    I am completely against socializing the risks for private space programs with US tax payers dollars. The US needs to stands up and gets NASA back where it was 40 years ago. Greedy rich corporate owners should not be allowed to profit from the hard lessons learned about space flight gained by tax payers money. Let the corporations pay for their own mistakes!

  • Douglas Messier

    The COTS program has been a relative bargain for taxpayers. You have this relatively modest investment that has produced two new launch vehicles and cargo freighters that have already been to ISS. The U.S. is competitive on the international launch market again. The government will soon have more options for launching its payloads at cheaper prices. ULA has been spurred to find ways to reduce its prices.

    If ITAR reforms lead to a revival of U.S. satellite making, we’ll soon be building more spacecraft and launching more of them from American soil. And that will have resulted from good government policy and industry executing on programs on its end.

    You look at what ESA’s is looking to do with Ariane 6 and it looks really good. That rocket is likely to take seven years and about 4 billion euros ($5.4 billion) and it still doesn’t lower costs that much (~$95 million per geosat). If SpaceX manages to recover its boosters for reuse, Ariane 6 will be obsolete before it’s even built.

    The major problem still lies with human spaceflight. The COTS model has been applied here; the problem is Congress never bought into that idea. The results have been ugly: repeated cuts of budget requests, delays in introducing a new transport, hundreds of millions of dollars sent over to the Russians, an under utilization of a space station we’re investing $100 billion in, and an enormous amount spent on SLS and Orion that won’t fly with astronauts until the 2020’s.

    The commercial crew partners are capable of getting the job done. Once that happens, it opens the door for more use of ISS and additional private industry in Earth orbit, including privately built Bigelow stations. And NASA could fully focus on deep space exploration.

    My preferred option would be to complete Orion for use in deep space but to stop development of SLS. Launch Orion on a Delta IV or Falcon Heavy and use a mixed fleet of boosters for the components you need for lunar and asteroid missions. Instead of spending billions and employing thousands of people developing a massive booster, put that money and talent toward building the vehicles for landing on the moon and going to asteroids.

    That’s my space program in a perfect world. It will never get past Congress.