Countdown on hold as US stalls lift-off

For the last four years, Beijing's ambitions to develop its commercial space industry into a global force in the satellite launch market have remained firmly grounded.

In the Long March China has a proven and competitive launch platform. But its use in the international market has been excluded by export control rules by the United States that effectively prevent mainland satellites, or any other satellites containing US technology, being launched from China.

Recently, however, China has been trying to persuade the US to lift the ban. In particular, it has passed new regulations, published by the state media on August 25, restricting Chinese companies from exporting missile-related technology without official permission.

The Chinese hope these new laws will address American concerns - long denied by Beijing - that domestic companies regularly sell missile technology to unstable or rogue states such as Iran and Pakistan. Such sales were one of the main reasons for the imposition of the export control rules in 1999.

However, the prospects for a change in US export control regulations appear at best mixed, despite the fact that the rules are generally regarded as a failure, even in the US. For example, according to a report issued in April by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), US restrictions on satellite technology transfers have backfired and now do more damage to the US satellite industry than they do to foreign space programmes.

The CSIS accused the State Department, which oversees export controls, of imposing sweeping restrictions harmful to US national security by driving satellite manufacturing out of the US altogether.

However, the balance sheets of American satellite-makers are not Washington's only worry.

According to Philip McAllister, director of US aerospace consulting firm Futron, Washington sees the Chinese initiative as a necessary but not sufficient step. US authorities, he says, will want to see real evidence of Chinese compliance before making any reciprocal concessions.

The upshot, says Mr McAllister, is that an easing of restrictions is unlikely soon because of the post-September 11 political climate.

Moreover, although legislation before Congress seeks to water down the present export control regime, for example by transferring supervision from the hawkish Department of State to the more business-oriented Department of Commerce, legislators are occupied with other domestic security concerns, in particular the Homeland Security Bill.

The main impact of this, so far as the Chinese are concerned, is that the domestic space industry will be starved of funding. At some US$70 million (HK$545 million) per launch, the Chinese can make huge profits from launches because of their comparatively low overheads.

But without the cash flow generated by regular international satellite launches, China is likely to be handicapped in developing its next generation heavy-duty lifters.

These include the Long March 2EA, designed to hoist 12- to 14-ton low-orbit payloads (compared to the present 9.5-ton maximum) and also the Long March 5-5.0 heavy launcher, slated to be introduced in 2008, which will feature a 23-ton low-orbit payload, rising to 40 tons with the addition of strap-on boosters.

Developing these new launch vehicles is important to China for two reasons. First, because the global trend towards bigger, heavier satellites has resulted in a demand for more powerful launchers, such as the newly-introduced American rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV.

Second, because China will need these new models if it is to progress in its ambitious goals for a manned space-flight programme. The plans are already well advanced. The Chinese have completed three test flights for a manned mission, and another, code-named Shenzhou-IV, is scheduled for early next year, followed by the real thing soon after.

That is only the beginning. The government first announced plans for a manned space station as long ago as 1992. Beyond that, Chinese officials have mooted a number of projects, ranging from a Chinese-designed space shuttle to a moon landing and even a lunar base.

Although analysts consider many of these latter programmes beyond China's technological, and probably financial, capacity, they nevertheless demonstrate that Beijing is serious about developing a manned space programme.

The Chinese can launch components sufficient for a small (say 12-tonne) space facility with the present crop of lifters. However, anything beyond that would require new technology. Manned lunar missions would demand an altogether more advanced launcher than those available, something such as the US Saturn V used in the Apollo programme and capable of hoisting 118 tons into low-earth orbit. This would take years to develop, and would be enormously expensive.

This is why the lifting of the US export technology rules is so important to Beijing. At the same time, it is another reason why the Americans may not be anxious to lift the ban.

As Greg Lucas, a project manager at Futron, says: the American position is influenced by more than just military or commercial concerns.

It may be that Washington is not anxious to see the Chinese space programme succeed. That being so, the Americans may well be happy to maintain sanctions, no matter how much Beijing is prepared to offer in return.