China's private space exploration industry is booming

The MIT Technology Review has a comprehensive new piece on China's rapidly-growing private space industry—which is apparently doing pretty well!

China is set to build a new space station later this year and will likely attempt to send its taikonauts to the moon before the decade ends. But these big-picture projects represent just one aspect of the country's space ambitions. Increasingly, the focus is now on the commercial space industry as well. The nation's growing private space business is less focused on bringing prestige and glory to the nation and more concerned with reducing the cost of spaceflight, increasing its international influence—and making money.


The space industry is undergoing a renaissance thanks to two big trends spurred by the commercial industry: we can make satellites for less money by making them smaller and using off-the-shelf hardware; and we can also make rockets for less money, by using less costly materials or reusing boosters after they've already flown (which SpaceX pioneered with its Falcon 9). These trends mean it is now cheaper to send stuff into space, and the services and data that satellites can offer have come down in price accordingly. 


In 2014, a year after Xi Jinping took over as the new leader of China, the Chinese government decided to treat civil space development as a key area of innovation, as it had already begun doing with AI and solar power. It issued a policy directive called Document 60 that year to enable large private investment in companies interested in participating in the space industry. 

There at least 78 commercial space companies operating in China, according to a report from the Institute of Defense Analyses, most of which were founded in the last seven years. Forty-two of those companies don't even have to rely on government funding, with private venture capitalists putting up more than $500 million in funding in 2018 alone. While that's only about a quarter of the money as US investors have spent, it's still a pretty significant investment in an industry that, again, is only seven years old.

I guess all that investment in Chinese science fiction is starting to pay off. There's a lot more detail at the article, too, though it's not clear if booster engine rockets are still being casually dropped on villages. Hopefully someone solves that problem soon, too.

(Also: I did not realize until now that Chinese astronauts were called "Taikonauts." Does every country get their own astronaut name? Or is that just an American tradition, some honor we grant to our closest competitors at any point in time, like Cosmonauts?)

China's surging private space industry is out to challenge the US [Neel V. Patel / MIT Technology Review]

Image: Public Domain via NASA