China's space wave

As China’s economic importance on the world’s stage is growing, so is its space programme. Ten years after becoming the third country in the world to launch human beings into orbit, China successively undertook its fifth manned space mission in June, its longest yet. Three “taikonauts” (Chinese astronauts) spent two weeks in orbit in the Tiangong 1 space module.

“Tiangong” means “heavenly palace”. However, investing in a space programme is no luxury—it’s serious business. Investment often enhances scientific, technological, industrial and security capabilities, and consequently brings non-negligible economic returns. More than 50 countries now have satellites in orbit, with clear, down-to-earth missions.      

China’s reach for the stars started in 1970 with the launch of its first satellite. Following an intensive research and development programme in the 1990s, China has now become a full-blown space “power”, involved in every type of space-related activity, including satellite and launcher manufacturing; spaceport; science and applications programmes; and human spaceflight. In 2012, for the second year in a row, China launched the second highest number of space rockets, after the Russian Federation, in first place, with the US in third place and Europe in fourth.    

China is now in the process of developing a space station which will be operational in 2016-22. At 30 tonnes, it will have one sixth of the mass of its orbital neighbour, the international space station (ISS). Incidentally, the station is the third brightest object in space (after the sun and the moon), and can be seen from your garden as a bright object in the night sky—a NASA website even helps you locate the ISS passing above your area (http:// spotthestation.nasa.gov/). The ISS is a scientific and engineering outpost run by the US, the Russian Federation, Europe, Japan and Canada, and is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.     

So now China is steadily catching up with other countries, with a booming space sector. With more than 40 Chinese companies involved in spacecraft manufacturing, there are around 50,000 people directly employed in the space sector, out of more than 500,000 people employed in the larger Chinese aerospace sector. Many public research institutes, often defence-related, and several universities, including Tsinghua University, contribute to the Chinese space programme, so the overall Chinese workforce involved in the space programme is probably much larger. In terms of turnover, the companies surveyed by the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics show revenues of more than US$10 billion in 2009, a value consistent with the intensiveness of the Chinese space programme.       

China is not only reaching for the stars, but positioning its industry on the ground to benefit from the ever-increasing globalisation of the aerospace sector.      


OECD (2011), The Space Economy at a Glance 2011, OECD Publishing, Paris 

Visit the OECD Space Forum website. 

© OECD Observer No 295 Q2 2013

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