This article is part of the “2014 Top Tech to Watch” series, IEEE Spectrum’s annual prediction of technologies that will make headlines in the coming year.
For the opening ceremony of the 64th International Astronautical Congress in Beijing this past September, the Chinese hosts pulled out all the stops. Acrobats bounded against a backdrop of starry skies, dancers in bulky spacesuits lumbered across the stage, and opera singers sang songs of love under a glowing neon moon.
Throughout the weeklong conference, Chinese officials spoke proudly of developing their lunar exploration program, building a heavy-lift rocket, constructing a spaceport, and planning an orbital space station. As 2014 dawns, China has the most active and ambitious space program in the world.
“They are having launches, and in the United States we’re in gridlock,” saysJoan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, R.I. “The Chinese will have a rover onthe moon, and we’re still developing PowerPoints for programs that don’t get approved by Congress.” That rover is rolling over the regolith right now.
How are the Chinese accomplishing so much? One explanation came from Gao Hongwei, chairman of the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp., who took the stage during September’s Beijing conference. “We are developing a space industry with Chinese characteristics,” he said.
Johnson-Freese put it more bluntly: “In terms of technology, are the Chinese at a peer level or more advanced than us? No, absolutely not. What they have that we don’t is political will.”