Space industry players urge cooperation for global and generational benefits
By Li Qing  ·  2021-05-10  ·   Source: NO.19 MAY 6, 2021

Richard Dalbello, Vice President of Global Engagement, Virgin Galactic, addresses a workshop via video link during the China Space Conference in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, on April 25 (XINHUA)

Since Soviet Union astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space in 1961, the exploration of the universe has changed stupendously. In 2001, Dennis Tito, a U.S. billionaire, reportedly paid $20 million for an eight-day trip in space, becoming the world's first space tourist.

Although the price of a seven-to-nine-day space trip has since jumped to $57 million, the global space travel market still has a huge demand, Wu Ji, a researcher with the National Space Science Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said at a workshop on China-U.S. commercial space dialogue during the China Space Conference held in east China's city Nanjing on April 25.

The workshop was jointly organized by three NGOs from China and the U.S.—the Chinese Society of Astronautics, Caelus Foundation and the Secure World Foundation.

American spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, one of the first to jump into the fray, said early last year that it had nearly 8,000 online registrations of interest from 60 countries and territories. At that time, the plan was to launch its first commercial space tourism flights in 2021, with a 90-minute journey to cost $250,000. However, the launch was postponed to "early 2022" and since then, there has been no update.

"The service will be initially accessible to those with immense wealth," Wu said. "But in the future, space tourism should be affordable for the rich, if not the middle-income group."

He hoped that with the development of the industry and technology, Chinese companies will also capture a slice of the international space tourism market. "Commercial programs can help lower costs and improve the efficiency of space activities, which will also benefit the traditional players in this area," he said.

A nascent sector

However, unlike the U.S., which has veteran companies exploring space such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, established as early as in 2002 with the goal of establishing colonies on Mars, China's commercial space industry is still in the primary stage, Zhao Qiming, a researcher with the Third Institute of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), said.

A white paper on China's space activities released in 2017 stressed the importance of non-governmental capital in space-related activities, including research and production, space infrastructure, information products and services, and satellite application, to enhance the commercialization of the space industry.

During the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) period, more space infrastructure will be built, and the capability of commercial space systems enhanced, integrating them into major national development strategies, Fu Zhimin, chief engineer of CASIC, said at a forum on April 26.

Development of the commercial space sector will also boost strategic emerging sectors such as the digital economy, intelligent manufacturing and new materials.

"China will enhance international cooperation and provide more commercial space services to global users," Fu said.

Over 200 companies dealing in rockets, satellites and their applications have emerged in China in recent years. The industry has seen much progress, including activities expanding from low-Earth orbit to outer space and integration of aerospace and marine engineering technologies. Besides government support, technology breakthroughs achieved in the past decades by traditional institutions provide the foundation for emerging players such as China Rocket Co.

Set up in 2016, China Rocket provides flexible and economical launch services such as the Jielong series of indigenously manufactured rockets that operate at competitive costs. Notably, the company is also improving its sea launch technology and running research and development of reusable rockets.

The Chinese launch sites are mostly in deserts or among mountains, which increases transportation costs and reduces commercial efficiency. With sea launches, commercial rocket companies can integrate manufacturing and launch.

Jin Xin, Vice President of China Rocket, said local governments are showing great interest in the space industry. However, more support from the Central Government in policies, funds, and taxation is still needed. "In return, the industry will promote local economic development," he said.

China's commercial aerospace industry needs an improved supply chain with a better business model, Zhao said, adding that technologies and products with significant innovation should be developed.

Global blueprint

A recent article published by CNN, Why China's Space Program Could Overtake NASA, said that the space race in the 21st century is not so much between governmental activities but between the Chinese and U.S. commercial space industry. The competition has "already emerged in low-Earth orbit, [and] will extend to Moon and eventually Mars in the coming decades," it predicted.

Richard Dalbello, Vice President of Global Engagement, Virgin Galactic, said competition in space is inevitable as technology advances. But cooperation is necessary as there is still a substantial amount of work to be done by governments and others working in commercial space.

With all of these new technologies, some of the older issues are also harder to address, he said, citing the allocation of global spectrum for communication and growing space debris, which is increasing the potential risk for spacecraft, international space stations and manned space activities.

"We are one global community when it comes to space, which is a global marketplace facing a regulatory challenge. I think it is our responsibility to address all of these issues together and to try to resolve them so the future generations will have access to space in the same way that we do," Dalbello said.

Zhao echoed him, saying space resources belong to all; so cooperation is the best way to harness them. He proposed building a shared mechanism with a satellite constellation that can be customized according to different demands. It can be managed jointly with profits shared by the companies from different countries that build it.

"With more companies sharing the cost, it will be less expensive to operate and benefit more people. The lower cost will inject impetus into quality infrastructure construction, which will form a virtuous cycle," he said.

Some U.S. companies still have a stereotyped idea that China's commercial aerospace industry is a completely different business and that the role of the government, business models and even the definition of "commercial" are different from those in other countries.

Wu said China's industry is developing in the same way as in the rest of the world, comprising an emerging corporate sector with fierce competition, government support, participation of capital, and promising players.

(Reporting from Nanjing, Jiangsu Province)

(Printed Edition Title: Sharing the Pie in the Sky)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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