One giant leap for China?

The Chinese are aiming high when it comes to space exploration. They want a space station of their own, writes David Whitehouse. And they want to put a man on the Moon within a decade

The future of space exploration is rising in the East. On the brink of its first manned spaceflight, China has ambitions that reach far beyond a propaganda mission into low Earth orbit. They have said that they want a space station of their own. How will Russia react to that? They have also said that they want to put a man on the Moon within a decade. How would America react to that?

The future of space exploration is rising in the East. On the brink of its first manned spaceflight, China has ambitions that reach far beyond a propaganda mission into low Earth orbit. They have said that they want a space station of their own. How will Russia react to that? They have also said that they want to put a man on the Moon within a decade. How would America react to that?

When China launched its latest capsule into space, Shenzhou 3, on 25 March, a dozen astronaut trainees were watching the lift-off of the Long March 2F rocket. It seems highly likely that two, possibly three, of them will take part in a manned mission next year, making China only the third country, after Russia and the United States, to be capable of launching a man into space.

The Chinese have come a long way in the 2,300 years since they first took to tossing bamboo tubes packed with gunpowder into bonfires to drive off evil spirits. Sometime between 300BC and AD1000, "fire arrows" were used, although historians are not sure if those were rockets or merely conventional arrows burning. But eventually, firecrackers did turn into rockets, with sulphur, saltpetre and charcoal for gunpowder.

By AD1045, gunpowder rockets were important weapons in China's military arsenal. The Sung Dynasty improved gunpowder projectiles in the 13th century with new explosive grenades and cannon to hold off the growing Mongolian hordes. It was fire arrows that repelled the Mongol invaders at the battle of Kai-fung-fu, AD1232.

The Long March family of long-range military ballistic missiles, and eventually space rockets, was developed by Tsein Weichang, an immigrant to the US from China. He was educated in Canada, then worked for the US government at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. However, he was forced to return to China in 1949 because of the frenzy of anti-communist witch-hunting that was going on.

The Chinese launched their first satellite – known as China 1 or Mao 1 – on 24 April 1970. From its orbit, it blared the patriotic song "The East Is Red". Since then, their space effort has picked up pace, and now we can see why. Shenzhou 3 is a prototype manned space-capsule, designed to be "technically suitable for astronauts", Chinese space officials said. It carried a set of instrumented mannequins that relayed environmental data to mission controllers so that they will know what their astronauts will have to contend with.

Chinese space planners have said that they plan to construct a permanent space station. It is likely that their first space station will consist of a few Shenzhou capsules linked together in space. It will be crude but it will be a working space outpost which is more than the Russians have after the demise of Mir. The Russians had to endure the ignominy of watching their ageing, but still serviceable space station, being deliberately brought down into the Pacific because Russia could not find the few tens of millions of pounds a year it would have taken to maintain it.

Shenzhou 3's mission seemed to be almost identical to that of Shenzhou 2, which was circling the Earth for about a week in January 2001, before touching down in Mongolia. The first flight of Shenzhou was in November 1999.

Before Shenzhou 3 landed, it carried out a series of manoeuvres suggesting that China was testing its rendezvous and docking procedures. Furthermore, Shenzhou 3's orbital path was designed to exercise spacecraft trackers and planners as they prepare for more complicated missions, in particular, spacecraft dockings. Because of this, some space-watchers are predicting back-to-back launches of Long March rockets carrying Shenzhou spacecraft. Liu Zhusheng, the chief designer of Long March rockets, has said that the unmanned Shenzhou 4 mission would be launched late this year and that it might include the installation of a docking mechanism and a test docking of two space vehicles.

When China does launch its first space crew, it will enter the history books in more ways than one. When the USSR and the US first put men into space, they used single-seater spacecraft. On its first attempt, however, China will send a multi-person crew in a capsule that will be a manoeuvrable, something that it took the other superpowers several years to demonstrate.

However, that may not be as remarkable as it first seems since China is not developing manned spaceflight technology in isolation, as the USSR and US did 40 years ago. China's manned capsule is based on Russian designs and incorporates a lot of experience that the other pioneers did not have. In addition, technology has advanced considerably since the first manned launches.

At the moment, it seems that the first Chinese space crew has not been chosen. The deputy launch director of the Shenzhou-3 mission, Qin Wenbo, said, "At the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, we saw, for the first time, the first group of yuhangyuans [astronauts] that our country has trained. Among these 12 people, there will be two or three who will become China's first group of yuhangyuans to travel in space."

China's man-in-space project is something that they have been working on for several years. In past years, at least two Chinese flight candidates underwent training at the cosmonaut training centre in Star City, Russia. Before that, in 1992 and in the 1970s, China started a manned space programme, but it faltered through lack of money and political backing.

But now the time is right. Witnessing the demise of the Russian space effort and the lack of direction of the US space programme, the Chinese believe that their space plans will give them undisputed admission to superpower status. Having men of their own in space will promote them into an intellectual and prestigious realm above that of Russia and indeed of the European Union, they believe.

But suppose China does start testing spacecraft that will take Chinese astronauts to the Moon. Is America going to stand by and let them do it on their own? Even though they turned their backs on the Moon in the 1970s, and have shown little interest in going back there since, what will American politicians say when they contemplate the Red Flag being planted on the Sea of Tranquillity? Will they say that they beat one type of communist to the Moon in the 1960s only to give it to another type in 2010?

For many, allowing the Chinese free access to the Moon would be politically unacceptable. America would have to return to the Moon itself. Perhaps it would be a good thing since it would force Nasa away from its unrealistic fixation on the manned exploration of Mars. Nasa will have to face the fact that putting men on Mars is too expensive, but sending men back on to the Moon is a very different matter.

Perhaps their talk of going to the Moon is a bargaining chip. China has previously sought to join the US-led International Space Station as a partner. According to Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Administration, the space station "is not a true international program" without Chinese participation.

Perhaps realising the influence that China will have on US space policy, Nasa and the US State Department are reported to be seeking new ties with China. According to Washington sources, the Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe has said that he and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage are spending "a lot of time" exploring whether and how to bring China into closer co-operation with the US in space. And well they might. Because they know the political implications if China takes manned spaceflight seriously.

For this reason, the future direction of manned exploration of space may not be decided in an office in the White House, or even in Nasa's Washington headquarters, and certainly not in an office in Russia. It will be decided in Beijing.

Dr David Whitehouse is the science editor of BBC News Online

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