While the United States converts its space shuttle fleet into museum showpieces in New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, China is busy launching astronauts into low Earth orbit. As the third nation to establish its own human spaceflight program—after the United States and Russia—China is pursuing an ambitious plan to establish itself as a space power, scientifically and perhaps militarily.
The 30-year plan, approved in 1992 and known as “Project 921,” has the goal of building a Chinese space station by 2020. (That’s the same year the International Space Station, a $100 billion lab the United States helped build, may be decommissioned.) Space ambitions are often larger on blueprint than in real life, but China appears on course to meet its goals. In June three Chinese astronauts docked for the first time with an experimental space lab, Tiangong 1, the country launched last year.
Chinese space officials intend to launch two more space labs containing scientific instruments, such as a gamma ray burst detector. They intend to launch an X-ray telescope in 2015. They’re building their own satellite navigation system, a rival to GPS. Earlier this year they tested a liquid oxygen and kerosene engine for a new rocket, the Long March 5, capable of launching 27-ton payloads. The heavy-lift rocket will enable China to build a space station, and perhaps fulfill another Chinese dream: reaching the moon.
The space aspirations of the People’s Republic of China come decades after NASA astronauts planted an American flag on lunar dust. According to Dean Cheng, an Asian studies expert at The Heritage Foundation, China is in a space competition not against the United States but against Japan and India. Still, it’s a little embarrassing to see China launching humans at a time when American astronauts are forced to rent seats on Russian rockets. (NASA’s next rocket, the Space Launch System, isn’t expected to carry astronauts until 2021.)
What’s worrisome about China’s space exploits, though, is not their boost to the country’s ego, but their boost to its military prowess. In 2007 China shot down one of its own aging weather satellites in a missile test censured by U.S. officials. Currently, it’s testing a robotic space plane called the Shenlong, less than 20 feet in length and rocketlike, whose purpose is undisclosed. Analysts believe it to be a small-scale answer to the U.S. Air Force’s experimental X-37B space plane, a robotic craft that returned from its own classified mission this summer, perhaps conducting Middle East surveillance. With such spacecraft in the works, Chinese and American officials will be eyeing each other closely.
Oil giant BP agreed to pay the largest criminal fine in U.S. history—$1.256 billion—as part of a $4.5 billion settlement with the Justice Department over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The London-based company admitted to negligence in the case of 11 workers who died when the oil rig exploded, and to withholding information from Congress about the oil spill rate. Three former BP employees still face criminal charges, and the company must settle environmental fines of up to $20 billion for releasing almost 5 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. —D.J.D.