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.