Norbert Frischauf on Beijing’s Mars mission: “China is a potential partner we should keep an eye on”
China is sending its first spacecraft to Mars, probably in late July. MERICS put three questions to Norbert Frischauf, a partner at SpaceTec Capital Partners and advisor to the European Space Agency and the European Commission, among others.
1. How does Tianwen-1 fit into the Chinese space program, and does it alter the competition with NASA or ESA?
Norbert Frischauf: Tianwen – "Heavenly Questions” – is meant to take a Chinese research vehicle to Mars for the first time. It is the logical next step after the Yutu or Jade Rabbit mission to the moon in 2013 – after the moon rover comes the Mars rover. If you want to be taken seriously in the space business, you have to go to Mars. The mission has a lot to do with prestige, it is not a big leap scientifically or technically. China is using established technology and analyzing Mars’ ground and atmosphere, something that Americans, Russians and Europeans have been doing for a while. It is a flag-waving mission and nothing is allowed to go wrong. But the competition between countries is always overstated. They compete, but they also cooperate again and again. Next to the USA, Europe, Russia, Japan and India, China is still relatively isolated. But the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has worked with the European Space Agency (ESA) in other fields. Europe can only do manned moon or Mars missions with the help of America or Russia – or in future perhaps with China’s.
2. We have recently seen a surge of Great Power competition on earth – does the same hold true for space, and what consequences will this have?
Space is an arena on which a state shows what it can do. We saw that in the 1960s with the race to the moon. The Soviet Union and the USA sought to impress allied and neutral states. The Soviets initially took the lead, which shocked the USA. A civil space program is a demonstration of what a state can do militarily – a rocket to the moon or to Mars is the basis of a space base, or it is an intercontinental carrier for all kinds of warheads. I do not think the upcoming Mars missions – NASA and the United Arab Emirates are also launching missions in July or August – represent a new space race just yet. But another one could develop – US President Donald Trump recently rekindled it by founding the "Space Force" as part of the US armed forces. Space is strategically essential from a military point of view. It's about communication, navigation and earth observation, and all major militaries now use these capabilities. We are seeing a big technology transfer from civil to military uses – and companies like SpaceX, Planet or Spire are profiting handsomely.
3. Does China’s space program offer new opportunities for Europe’s ambitions in space? If so, how? And are there any concomitant risks?
Of course, this offers Europe some great opportunities. The Europeans are the only ones who can cooperate with everyone else, partly because we are less concerned with military power in space than with science. We are constantly working with the USA, Russia, India, Japan – and have worked with China. It may be a consequence of Europe's decentralization or polite understatement, but there is too little public recognition of the fact that no country can really do without Europe when it comes to space programs – we are the number one when it comes to space science. For example, researchers at the University of Geneva won the Nobel Prize for discovering exoplanets orbiting a star like our sun. In international comparison, China is not yet as good as the USA. But we Europeans must ask ourselves how reliable the USA will be in future. China is a potential partner we should keep an eye on. The Chinese system offers one huge advantage – whatever the leadership decides can be implemented rigorously. As a newcomer to the space business, China still has a long way to go, especially in fields like computers, robotics or energy systems.
The interview was conducted by our editor Gerrit Wiesmann.