In 1999, after pursuing a modest program for close on 30 years, Chinese space engineers test-flew a space vehicle designed to carry humans. No one was aboard, but the world snapped to attention.
The feat bore undeniable witness to a new Chinese space strategy: to overtake the space efforts of Japan, Europe, and possibly even Russia. In fact, in the decade ahead, China may well become a strong No. 2, second only to the United States.
China's national strategy for space activities, including lofting astronauts, is no secret, at least in outline (China's astronauts have been dubbed taikonauts by some external observers, the taiko- prefix meaning space in Chinese). Last November the Information Office of the Chinese government's State Council issued a 12-page white paper on the subject. While long on philosophy and short on specifics, it provides insight into why Beijing has decided to pour precious resources into space activities, perhaps as much as US $1.5 billion per year.
"The continuous development and application of space technology has become an important endeavor in the modernization drive of countries all over the world," announced the opening paragraph. "The Chinese government has all along regarded the space industry as an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy." In addition, the paper claimed, "a number of satellite application systems have been established and have yielded remarkable social and economic benefits."
The rationale for this expensive endeavor was summarized in the June 2000 issue of Xiandai Bingqi, the monthly journal of a military technology research institute. "From a science and technology perspective, the experience of developing and testing a manned spacecraft will be more important to China's space effort than anything that their astronauts can actually accomplish on the new spacecraft," the article stated. "This is because it will raise levels in areas such as computers, space materials, manufacturing technology, electronic equipment, systems integration, and testing as well as being beneficial in the acquisition of experience in developing navigational, attitude control, propulsion, life support, and other important subsystems, all of which are vitally necessary to dual-use military/civilian projects."
Under their plan, the Chinese intend not just to catch up to and overtake foreign space achievements, but also to outdo them in specific areas. Activities they feel do not contribute to these goals will be ignored. (In their idiom, this is "concentrating superior forces to fight the tough battle and persisting in accomplishing something while putting some other things aside.")
More specifically, the intent is to build an impressive stand-alone space capability on a narrow, carefully designed technological base. That approach is unlike the advances on a broad front that characterized Soviet and U.S. space programs. It is also unlike the projects of the second tier of world space powers, such as the European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, and several European nations, which were also narrowly focused but which supplemented the programs of their senior partners, the United States and Russia.
Such a drive to overtake the Europeans and even the Russians in space is entirely credible, world space experts have assured IEEE Spectrum. "China certainly has the political will to forge ahead with its space program," said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the department of transnational security issues at Honolulu's Asia-Pacific Center on Security Studies and author of The Chinese Space Program: A Mystery Within A Maze (Krieger Publishing, 1998). "It recognizes all the internal and external prestige-related benefits of space that the U.S. and the FSU [former Soviet Union] did in the 1960s, as well as the technology-industrialization-economic benefits that pushed Europe into space later."
"It is possible that China will over the next five years come to match Europe's launch rate of around 10 launches a year," noted Brian Harvey, author of The Chinese Space Programme: From Conception to Future Capabilities (Wiley-Praxis, 1998). "Europe's launches will be mainly commercial and scientific, whereas China will concentrate on applications and its manned program. Unlike Europe, China's scientific program is small and this is likely to remain the case."
"A lot of misperceptions surround the Chinese space program," Harvey continued, referring to the tales of low-technology spacecraft and widespread copying of foreign designs. "A lot of them reflect a western cultural notion that the Chinese couldn't possibly master this kind of technology." It is more helpful, in his opinion, "to look at the way in which they have built their program up over the years--slowly, patiently, carefully, in a disciplined way, borrowing from elsewhere [as with the space suit pictured above], but only to a limited extent. These are characteristics of the Chinese space program, whether we like their politics or not."
Public and media perceptions are all-important, Harvey added. "If China puts astronauts into space in the next number of years, there will be a perception that it has reached space super-power status," he said.
Although China could try to build its own Salyut-class space station (the Salyuts were smaller predecessors of Mir that flew in the 1970's), the shifting geopolitical climate following the terrorist attacks of 11 September may make China a newly palatable major partner in the International Space Station.