China\'s Space Program Intrigues the West
Por Tierramérica Editor's Desk
Following the successful flight of Shenzhou V, U.S. aerospace experts are wondering: What comes next for China? Asia specialist Dean Cheng told Tierramérica he thinks China is capable of carrying out a moon mission in the next decade.
BEIJING/SAN FRANCISCO, (Tierramérica).-
The successful launch of a manned space vessel last week is the first step for China's ambitious space program, whose scientific and military scope is being closely watched by observers in the West.
An explosion of public excitement greeted Lt. Col. Yang Liwei when he returned to Earth on the morning of Oct. 16 after spending 21 hours in orbit.
Shenzhou V (meaning 'divine vessel') landed smoothly on a plateau in Mongolia. Yang was received as a hero at home, but abroad the congratulations were interspersed with thoughts of "What is next?"
The Shenzhou V flight "is the cherry on the cake" of the Chinese space program. "It is a strong statement to the United States and Russia that China is competitive, that it's at the same level, and that is leaving behind Japan and Europe," says Dean Cheng, research analyst with the Asia Project at the CNA Corporation, based in Washington.
"China's proficiency in space was strengthened by Shenzhou 3 (unmanned flight in March 2002). With its infrastructure and technological advances, can develop a consistent, long-term program," Cheng, who has studied the Chinese aerospace program for the past decade, told Tierramérica.
The Shenzhou V flight came just when the U.S. space shuttle fleet is grounded, due to the tragic explosion of the Columbia in February.
"The Chinese flight should be a wake-up call for all Americans that something is wrong in our space program," said Rick Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a non-governmental group that advocates more space exploration.
Roger Handberg, of the U.S. University of Central Florida, agrees. The U.S. space experts have become indifferent towards manned space flights and assume can continue indefinitely without support, he said in conversation with Tierramérica.
China's success is a reminder of how fragile support for space research is, and that the only way to ensure the security of sending people to outer space is the participation of more countries, added Handberg, director of the university's center for space policy and law.
With the successful flight of the Shenzhou V, China became the third country to put a man in outer space, 40 years after the United States and Russia.
It is also a symbolic affirmation of the nation as a technology giant and an emerging world power.
President Hu Jintao described the mission as an honor for the fatherland, and said Yang is a "warrior" who explores outer space to fulfill China's dream of the millennium.
China, which has had satellites in orbit since the 1970s, launched its current space program 11 years ago, promoted by then-president Jian Zemin.
Although officials keep quiet about the specifics of China's outer space ambitions, they have announced that in the next three years they will put a satellite in lunar orbit to study the geography and potential resources of the Moon.
The program is known as "Change'e", named for a Chinese legend about a woman of extraordinary beauty who flew to the Moon and remained there as its goddess.
They have also announced a manned space mission to the Moon and, in 17 years, the construction of a space station. China is not taking part in the International Space Station mission being managed by the United States and Russia.
CNA Corporation researcher Cheng is skeptical about the timelines the Chinese government has set for these programs, but he says, "If the question is: Is China able to develop a mission to the Moon in the next decade? The answer is yes, without a doubt."
"At the moment, it is only a question of engineering. Let's put it like this: the basic theoretical framework is solved," said Cheng.
"China's future plans, contained in various documents are for now just pieces of paper, until the Chinese leaders decide to support them," said university expert Handberg.
"Lunar space missions are scientifically important, but they must compete with other social and economic necessities. That will be the test of China's commitment," he said.
We must remember that the United States could have continued its trips to the Moon after 1972, but decided to invest its money in other things, he said. That is the dilemma of all space programs: money.
The U.S. military-industrial complex is expected to closely monitor the developments of the Chinese space program.
In July, a report from the Pentagon (U.S. Department of Defense) stated that China would likely contribute to perfecting military space systems in 2010 to 2020.
"Manned space flight does very little to change the equation for space commerce or national security. The issues are whether Beijing or Washington will turn it into a new source of competition," comments James Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Through the space feat of the Shenzhou V, the leaders of communist China attempted to recover declining popular support and to promote national unity.
Apparently, they did just that. The criticisms about the costs and merits of the space program have been buried amidst national euphoria in a nation of more than a billion people.
But according to the critics, sending a human being into space is too costly an endeavor for a country with as many as 106 million people living in poverty.
The detractors, who rarely dare publicly criticize the prestigious space program, say it is dominated by the military and that the funds could be better used in other scientific areas.
They say the manned space mission reminds them of the era of Mao Zedong (1949-1976), the father of communist China, whose government tried to compete with the world's superpowers at the time for military reasons.
Although there are no official figures available regarding the Chinese space program budget, studies estimate that it is around two billion dollars a year, comparable to what Japan spends, and more than Russia, but modest compared to the United States, which earmarks more than 15 billion dollars a year for its space program.
In the months leading up to the Shenzhou launch, China's state propaganda machine sought to gather support for the mission, underscoring its scientific applications and playing down the size of the budget.
Beyond improving telecommunications and meteorological satellites, China's space program will have direct influence in advancing the country's agricultural development, say scientists.
"Every space program in any country is criticized for its huge costs and, in the case of manned space flights, critics say they are political acts aimed at the domestic audience," said Cheng.
"If that invalidates a space mission or not is going to be discussed for a long time, but at the end of the day, putting a man in orbit, no matter what nationality, is a risky endeavor and needs great courage," he said.
* With reporting by Antoaneta Bezlova (Beijing), Cristina Hernández (United States) and Diego Cevallos (Mexico).