Page 1 of 2 China's role in commercial space on hold
By Peter J Brown
Just a few days ago, the organizers of the Google Lunar X Prize announced that
one of the new international participants was a Shanghai-based German-Chinese
team known as Team Selene. This team has proposed a Lunar Rocket Car (LuRoCA 1)
equipped with HDTV cameras.
This might not necessarily turn out to be one of the first commercial success
stories in Chinese space history. Still, it is noteworthy. Markus Bindhammer,
the German-born inventor who heads the team - Shi Xiaojun serves as executive
designer - believes that Team Selene has caught everyone by surprise. He is not
aware of any other Chinese aerospace or space technology
companies active in this competition which now includes well over a dozen
To win the US$20 million grand prize, a team must build and deploy by December,
2012, a privately-funded spacecraft that can make a successful soft landing on
the moon. It must then travel at least 500 meters on the lunar surface while
simultaneously transmitting video, images and data back to Earth. If a team
does all of this by December, 2014, they can still claim a prize of $15
million. The second-placed team is awarded $5 million and there are bonus
prizes as well.
"Our project is the first one [from China]. China will follow it, but with
reservations at first. China is very open to new things and the people are
enthusiastic. It is a first step in terms of cooperation between China and
other nations regarding astronautics, and also a great chance for the Chinese
aerospace industry," said Bindhammer.
Team Selene is not getting any support from the Chinese government or China's
aerospace industry because nobody seems to know much about it.
"We hope that this will change soon. I also hope that Germany will offer some
support, too," says Bindhammer, although how such support may impact the
"privately-funded" designation of the project is unclear.
Attempts to reach California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
(SpaceX) for an update on this specific line from the Google Lunar X Prize
website were unsuccessful. (SpaceX is developing the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9
"[Team Selene is] exploring the possibility of launching with SpaceX, but will
also look into opportunities with Chinese launch providers."
"We are extremely excited to have them on board as our first team from China
and our third team from Asia. Two other teams, Advaeros and Independence-X,
hail from Malaysia," said William Pomerantz, senior director of the X PRIZE
Foundation/Space Projects. "Asia certainly possesses the talent and the
creativity to explore the moon, as evidenced by the spacecraft currently in
lunar orbit, so we are really looking forward to watching these teams."
Peter Homer, the president and founder of Maine-based Flagsuit LLC, for
example, knows how quickly contests like the X Prize can open doors. He won
$200,000 in 2007 for his design of a new astronaut's glove after he entered one
of the "Centennial Challenges" which were initiated by NASA in 2004.
"Winning the 2007 Astronaut Glove Competition jump-started the latest phase of
my aerospace career," said Homer. "After the contest, I founded Flagsuit LLC to
further develop and commercialize the winning glove technology for future space
suits. Though I have prior experience as an aerospace engineer and manager, I
had not been active in the community in the 10 years before the contest. Now
I'm all in."
Homer sees advantages, and significant contributions, coming from all the
private sector space - or so-called "New Space" - companies now forming in the
"The combination of vision and competitiveness bodes well for the future of
private sector space. These companies are not so much interested in just making
a buck as they are in getting things done and making a buck as a result," said
Homer. "We have already seen privately developed rockets, a space station, and
a space suit. The innovation is already happening. It is only a matter of time
before the technology is passenger ready."
Although Homer detects signs of a private sector "space race", this one is very
different from the one involving governments only.
"It seems much more friendly than the US-Soviet contest. The competition is
certainly intense, but there is a level of camaraderie among the new players,
pushing each other onward rather than trying to cut each other's throats," said
Homer. "It reflects an understanding that the new market will be plenty big for
everyone. There's a spirit of collaboration as companies look for ways to
complement each other rather than trying to do everything internally."
It was the "Cheap Access To Space" or "CATS" Prize in 2000 that got John
Carmack, a software company executive and founder of Texas-based Armadillo
Aerospace to really focus on private launch vehicle technology. The CATS Prize
was to award $250,000 to the first private sector team to launch a 2kg payload
to an altitude of 200 kilometers. Nobody won that prize.
But at the 2008 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge - another X Prize
competition - held recently in New Mexico, Armadillo Aerospace beat the other
eight teams competing, and claimed a $350,000 prize by successfully launching a
rocket to an altitude of 50 meters where it hovered for 90 seconds before
landing on a precise spot 50 meters away.
"If commercial transport really takes off like we hope it will, all the
government programs will start to look rather ineffective, but that still
requires a fair amount of time and good fortune," said Carmack. "The Centennial
Challenges - like the one Homer won - have generally been viewed as highly
successful for encouraging small teams to undertake challenging and innovative
Yes, these contests are important, and yet a reality check is in order whenever
one starts talking about the possible emergence of a private space sector in
China. There are plenty of space industry experts who do not see this as a
feasible or likely outcome.
Rosanna Sattler, a partner with Boston-based Posternak Blankstein and Lund LLP,
serves as 2008 Chair of the US Chamber of Commerce's Space Enterprise Council.
Although the Chinese are allowing certain industries to adopt capitalist
approaches, she rules out any possibility that any genuine "New Space"
companies will emerge in China soon.
"China's space program is controlled by the military. There is no separate
civil space program, and it is unlikely that there will be a commercial effort,
given the military's role," said Sattler, who added that the NASA-funded
Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program in the US and other
private sector initiatives are succeeding.
NASA selected SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences with its Taurus II
launch vehicle as the two COTS award winners. The two companies must first
demonstrate that they can safely deliver cargo or crew to the International
Space Station before NASA will sign a contract with them.
However, COTS success or not, this does not mean that China or other countries
will suffer a setback if they fail to follow the same path.
"Other countries, including China will not be at a disadvantage. For example,
Russia has Progress, and JAXA [Japan's national space agency] has the HTV, a
robotic spacecraft intended to resupply the Japanese Experiment Module on ISS,"
says Sattler. "Private space ventures have yet to take off outside of the
Michael Gold, director of Bigelow Aerospace's Washington, DC Area Office and
new chair of the Export Control Working Group at the US Federal Aviation
Administration's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC)
strongly supports the COTS model, or a COTS-like model, wherein the government
provides milestone-based funding instead of cost-plus contracts. (The comments
that he makes here are his own and not that of the COMSTAC or the Working
"It remains an extremely powerful tool. Nations that do not take advantage of
this structure are losing out on an invaluable commonsense government
contracting practice that offers unparalleled protection to taxpayers," said
He points to the impact of national space agencies on job creation and
international competitiveness as an important consideration, too.
"If you look at NASA from that point of view, it has been an utter failure. The
US has lost roughly 700,000 aerospace jobs in the past decade. We have gone
from being number one in commercial space launch to having only one commercial
space launch in 2006," said Gold. "President-elect Obama has emphasized job
creation, and that is exactly what private sector entrepreneurial companies do.
They create commercial opportunities and employment that do not depend on