At 7 a.m. Beijing time on Feb. 7, SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk, successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket. This rocket has the biggest thrust next to the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo program, with three times the payload of the Long March 5 rocket from China.
SpaceX is a private company, but it has the advanced support of American technology. While Falcon Heavy’s development has had its share of struggles, it is still an easy project for America’s aerospace industry.
China’s aerospace industry is a national industry, but our work in heavy rockets is filled with challenges due to our weak background in this area. The combined level of China’s existing science and technology still cannot provide heavy rocket research with everything it needs. Exploration of design, innovation and even material upgrades all take place at the same time, which means that for every additional meter a Chinese heavy rocket grows in radius, Chinese science and technology have to improve another level as well.
Large-propulsion rockets are the basic tools for exploring our universe; if the thrust is not there, nothing else is possible. Long March 5 has had one successful and one failed launch so far. Currently, Chinese aerospace is able to achieve bearing 20-plus tons at a low Earth orbit, but to realize manned moon explorations, our rocket-bearing capacity has to be better than Falcon Heavy.
We have to realize that, back in the Apollo moon program, the Saturn V heavy rocket already carried more than 100 tons at a low Earth orbit, with more thrust than the Falcon Heavy. One could say that the Falcon Heavy is the ruminant version of Saturn V.
Aerospace is one of China’s more advanced high-tech industries. While the difference in rocket thrust between China and the U.S. would not be the only measure of the two countries’ aerospace achievements, it is a snapshot of each country’s aerospace prowess, or even a reflection of the countries’ combined technology levels.
Not only does Chinese aerospace technology need to play catch-up to America, our mentality needs work too. Aerospace development requires a huge investment because it is such a strategic area, but some people ignore its importance. Shortsighted claims that investment in aerospace should be redirected to poverty relief or education often get support online.
America and the former Soviet Union have both made sacrifices for the aerospace industry. Humankind’s first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, died for his work. America has had two spaceflight explosions and lost two teams of astronauts. The two countries’ spectacular aerospace achievements were the result of incredible struggles, and the foresight of investing for the long run.
Recently, some scholars have started claiming that China has basically surpassed America, which met with public criticism.The fact that these blindly arrogant opinions could be advocated should make us reflect. People who promote these beliefs must think that there are people who like this kind of bragging; we hope they have misjudged how Chinese society really feels.
America is still the leader in many major high-tech industries, and China is still chasing it with difficulty. We have to face up to the huge gap between America and China, and not think that our market advantage will reverse the overwhelmingly superior standing America has in technology. We have a long way to go to catch up to America.
Rocket propulsion represents the level of a country’s scientific exploration and is a symbol of competition among major countries. The more thrust one has, the more advantage one has. China is lagging behind America, but there’s no need for despondency. In rocket propulsion, China has made steady gains, and the Falcon Heavy doesn’t change this trend. In 10 years, it is very possible that the propulsion of Chinese rockets will surpass that of the Falcon Heavy. As long as we make the effort, China will not remain behind America.