Reaching for the stars

Updated: 2012-04-27 08:47

By Joan Johnson-Freese (China Daily)

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Technology, public, political support vital for success of space programs

The success of the Shenzhou IX mission will move China's manned space program increasingly close to having demonstrated all the critical capabilities required to set its goals and move forward in space - to wherever it wants to go.

China will be, in many ways, in the same position as the United States and Russia, the only other countries to have manned spaceflight capabilities. It will be dependent as much on political will for future exploration opportunities as on technological capabilities.

China began its manned journey into space in 1992, with the approval of Project 921. The first of the Shenzhou missions, one through four, were unmanned technology demonstrators. Having had to cancel the prior Shuguang manned program in the 1970s due to budget and technical issues, China was anxious to move their efforts forward quickly, working with Russia in areas like life support where they had no prior experience.

They came up the learning curve admirably fast, using more and more indigenous technology and know-how with each mission. Then in October 2003, Shenzhou V successfully carried the first Chinese taikonaut, Yang Liwei, into space, gaining China entry into the exclusive club of countries capable of manned spaceflight.

China has been consistent in its path into space. Its course has been simultaneously incremental and ambitious. China's manned launches are less frequent than the number carried out by the US or Russia during their early years as space-faring nations, but with bigger leaps forward with each launch. Technology is first tested on unmanned missions, and when deemed safe, a crew follows.

Shenzhou V, VI and VIII demonstrated that China's assent into space was not a one-time event; evolving from a crew of one to a crew of two, then three, with each mission becoming more technically complex. Shenzhou VII included China's first extra vehicular activity (EVA) by taikonaut Zhai Zhigang.

Then Shenzhou VIII was again an unmanned mission. The Shenzhou VIII vessel robotically demonstrated docking with another vessel, the Tiangong-1 space module. That module has been orbiting since its launch in October 2011, and serves as a small prototype for a larger space station to be launched in the future. In the meantime, however, Chinese taikonauts will make the most of the Tiangong module to conduct not only docking tests, but space science experiments. At least two of the Shenzhou IX crew will leave the Shenzhou module and enter Tiangong.

Shenzhou X, scheduled for later in 2012, is to be another manned mission to dock with Tiangong-1. With demonstrations of manned docking ability complete, China will have only a very few achievements yet to claim to move from being a "developing" space power to a fully "mature" space power.

In particular, China still needs to demonstrate and declare operational new heavy lift capability, the Long March 5, to be able to launch its large space station, and for interplanetary travel. Once that is attained, China will be in the position of being able to decide its own fate in space. Whether it goes forward with to a manned mission to the moon, and potentially even Mars, will be a political decision rather than one of technological ability.

Technically, the Chinese manned space program is currently about where the Gemini program was during the Apollo years in the US. The US went on to the moon. Enthusiasm for space exploration, as evidenced by consistent political support which then translates into required budget support, then waned. The US is now in a transition to move space exploration away from being totally a government initiative; a necessary but painful transition.

In China, momentum, enthusiasm and public and political support is very high, and can be as important as technology in terms of planning for the future. Space exploration has significant geopolitical implications; China's clear regional technical leadership is not lost on other countries. Whether China will set a course for the stars and press forward when it has all the technological capabilities to do so will be an important political decision. Congratulations are in order for what they have done to date. The world is watching to see what course China will pursue in the future.

The author is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island in the US.

(China Daily 04/27/2012 page7)