China’s space program might have been slowed by the pandemic in 2020, but it certainly didn’t stop. The year’s highlights included sending a rover to Mars, bringing moon rocks back to Earth, and testing out the next-generation crewed vehicle that should take taikonauts into orbit—and possibly to the moon—one day.
But there were a few achievements the rest of the world might not have noticed. One was the November 7 launch of Ceres-1, a new type of rocket that, at just 62 feet in height, is capable of taking 770 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit. The launch sent the Tianqi 11 communications satellite into space.
At first glance, the Ceres-1 launch might seem unremarkable. Ceres-1, however, wasn’t built and launched by China’s national program. It was a commercial rocket—only the second from a Chinese company ever to go into space. And the launch happened less than three years after the company was founded. The achievement is a milestone for China’s fledgling—but rapidly growing—private space industry, an increasingly critical part of the country’s quest to dethrone the US as the world’s preeminent space power.
The rivalry between the US and China, whose space program has surged over the last two decades, is what most people mean when they refer to the 21st-century's space race. China is set to build a new space station later this year and will likely attempt to send its taikonauts to the moon before the decade ends. But these big-picture projects represent just one aspect of the country’s space ambitions. Increasingly, the focus is now on the commercial space industry as well. The nation's growing private space business is less focused on bringing prestige and glory to the nation and more concerned with reducing the cost of spaceflight, increasing its international influence—and making money.
“The state is really great at large, ambitious projects like going to the moon or developing a large reconnaissance satellite,” says Lincoln Hines, a Cornell University researcher who focuses on Chinese foreign policy. “But it’s not responsive to meeting market needs”—one big way to encourage rapid technological growth and innovation. “I think the government thinks its commercial space sector can be complementary to the state,” he says.
What are the market needs that Hines is referring to? Satellites, and rockets that can launch them into orbit. The space industry is undergoing a renaissance thanks to two big trends spurred by the commercial industry: we can make satellites for less money by making them smaller and using off-the-shelf hardware; and we can also make rockets for less money, by using less costly materials or reusing boosters after they’ve already flown (which SpaceX pioneered with its Falcon 9). These trends mean it is now cheaper to send stuff into space, and the services and data that satellites can offer have come down in price accordingly.
China has seen an opportunity. A 2017 report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that the space industry could be worth up to $2.7 trillion by 2030. Setting foot on the moon and establishing a lunar colony might be a statement of national power, but securing a share of such a highly lucrative business is perhaps even more important to the country’s future.
“In the future, there will be tens of thousands of satellites waiting to launch, which is a major opportunity for Galactic Energy” says Wu Yue, a company spokesperson.
The problem is, China has to make up decades’ worth of ground lost to the West.
How did China get here—and why?
Until recently, China’s space activity has been overwhelmingly dominated by two state-owned enterprises: the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). A few private space firms have been allowed to operate in the country for a while: for example, there’s the China Great Wall Industry Corporation Limited (in reality a subsidiary of CASC), which has provided commercial launches since it was established in 1980. But for the most part, China’s commercial space industry has been nonexistent. Satellites were expensive to build and launch, and they were too heavy and large for anything but the biggest rockets to actually deliver to orbit. The costs involved were too much for anything but national budgets to handle.
That all changed this past decade as the costs of making satellites and launching rockets plunged. In 2014, a year after Xi Jinping took over as the new leader of China, the Chinese government decided to treat civil space development as a key area of innovation, as it had already begun doing with AI and solar power. It issued a policy directive called Document 60 that year to enable large private investment in companies interested in participating in the space industry.
“Xi’s goal was that if China has to become a critical player in technology, including in civil space and aerospace, it was critical to develop a space ecosystem that includes the private sector,” says Namrata Goswami, a geopolitics expert based in Montgomery, Alabama, who’s been studying China’s space program for many years. “He was taking a cue from the American private sector to encourage innovation from a talent pool that extended beyond state-funded organizations.”
As a result, there are now 78 commercial space companies operating in China, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Defense Analyses. More than half have been founded since 2014, and the vast majority focus on satellite manufacturing and launch services.
For example, Galactic Energy, founded in February 2018, is building its Ceres rocket to offer rapid launch service for single payloads, while its Pallas rocket is being built to deploy entire constellations. Rival company i-Space, formed in 2016, became the first commercial Chinese company to make it to space with its Hyperbola-1 in July 2019. It wants to pursue reusable first-stage boosters that can land vertically, like those from SpaceX. So does LinkSpace (founded in 2014), although it also hopes to use rockets to deliver packages from one terrestrial location to another.
Spacety, founded in 2016, wants to turn around customer orders to build and launch its small satellites in just six months. In December it launched a miniaturized version of a satellite that uses 2D radar images to build 3D reconstructions of terrestrial landscapes. Weeks later, it released the first images taken by the satellite, Hisea-1, featuring three-meter resolution. Spacety wants to launch a constellation of these satellites to offer high-quality imaging at low cost.
To a large extent, China is following the same blueprint drawn up by the US: using government contracts and subsidies to give these companies a foot up. US firms like SpaceX benefited greatly from NASA contracts that paid out millions to build and test rockets and space vehicles for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. With that experience under its belt, SpaceX was able to attract more customers with greater confidence.
Venture capital is another tried-and-true route. The IDA report estimates that VC funding for Chinese space companies was up to $516 million in 2018—far shy of the $2.2 billion American companies raised, but nothing to scoff at for an industry that really only began seven years ago. At least 42 companies had no known government funding.
And much of the government support these companies do receive doesn’t have a federal origin, but a provincial one. “[These companies] are drawing high-tech development to these local communities,” says Hines. “And in return, they’re given more autonomy by the local government.” While most have headquarters in Beijing, many keep facilities in Shenzhen, Chongqing, and other areas that might draw talent from local universities.
There’s also one advantage specific to China: manufacturing. “What is the best country to trust for manufacturing needs?” asks James Zheng, the CEO of Spacety’s Luxembourg headquarters. “It’s China. It’s the manufacturing center of the world.” Zheng believes the country is in a better position than any other to take advantage of the space industry’s new need for mass production of satellites and rockets alike.
The most critical strategic reason to encourage a private space sector is to create opportunities for international collaboration—particularly to attract customers wary of being seen to mix with the Chinese government. (US agencies and government contractors, for example, are barred from working with any groups the regime funds.) Document 60 and others issued by China’s National Development and Reform Commission were aimed not just at promoting technological innovation, but also at drawing in foreign investment and maximizing a customer base beyond Chinese borders.
“China realizes there are certain things they cannot get on their own,” says Frans von der Dunk, a space policy expert at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Chinese companies like LandSpace and MinoSpace have worked to accrue funding through foreign investment, escaping dependence on state subsidies. And by avoiding state funding, a company can also avoid an array of restrictions on what it can and can’t do (such as constraints on talking with the media). Foreign investment also makes it easier to compete on a global scale: you’re taking on clients around the world, launching from other countries, and bringing talent from outside China.
Although China is taking inspiration from the US in building out its private industry, the nature of the Chinese state also means these new companies face obstacles that their rivals in the West don’t have to worry about. While Chinese companies may look private on paper, they must still submit to government guidance and control, and accept some level of interference. It may be difficult for them to make a case to potential overseas customers that they are independent. The distinction between companies that are truly private and those that are more or less state actors is still quite fuzzy, especially if the government is a frequent customer. “That could still lead to a lack of trust from other partners,” says Goswami. It doesn’t help that the government itself is often very cagey about what its national program is even up to.
And Hines adds that it’s not always clear exactly how separate these companies are from, say, the People’s Liberation Army, given the historical ties between the space and defense sectors. “Some of these things will pose significant hurdles for the commercial space sector as it tries to expand,” he says.
None of these new companies are yet profitable, and it will be quite some time before they are. “There isn’t any sign of indication that this industry will flop,” says Hines. “But many experts do think a lot of these companies will go out of business.” Apart from the challenge of attracting customers outside China, many companies are still trying to figure out who exactly their customers ought to be.
American companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin had billionaire founders ready to burn cash to take on large risks, push past big failures, and finally get off the ground. And while a Chinese billionaire entered the industry last year, “there is no Chinese Elon Musk to push these riskier ventures forward,” says Hines. It’s also unclear whether Chinese companies, even those supported by wealthy backers, will have that appetite for risk.
Zheng says one thing Spacety has offered is exceptional transparency with clients for whom it is developing satellites—something that’s still uncommon for Chinese firms. “Many of them have no kind of spaceflight experience,” he says. “They want to see and learn what goes on, but the large companies won’t allow for that. We’re different.”
Lastly, China needs to figure out a legal framework that can guide the commercial industry in more explicit terms, and specify what’s allowed and what is not. It is the only major space power without a specialized space law. (The American version is Title 51 of the United States Code.) While the hope is that free enterprise can generate innovation, national governments are still liable for whatever space activities a country’s private companies conduct. There’s a need to license and approve these missions, ensuring that governments know what they’ve signed up for.
Despite all this, China’s space industry is rolling forward. These new startups haven’t just adopted American business practices—they’ve also begun to embrace American startup culture as a way to foster business relationships and grow. During my video call with Spacety’s Zheng, the company’s Beijing CEO, Yang Feng, briefly dropped in to say hello, on his way back from a party where he’d been schmoozing and enjoying drinks with many peers and partners in the industry. “It’s part of the way we do business now,” Zheng said. “Innovation is not just new technology itself—it’s also a new way of doing things.”