The final frontier
Updated: 2012-04-27 08:47
By Xin Dingding (China Daily)
In 2003, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut in space and China the third nation in the world after the US and Russia to independently carry out manned spaceflights, Qi says.
China, however, started preliminary work on manned space flights way back in 1967. Scientists had completed the sketches and miniatures of a spaceship called Shuguang, which means "dawn" in Chinese. The plan was approved by the government in 1970 and more than 1,000 fighter jet pilots were selected for the space missions.
But, due to economic and technical reasons, the former Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense cancelled the spacecraft project in 1975. In the following decade, China's aerospace industry was instead told to focus on satellite development.
The late leader Deng Xiaoping was quoted by The 50 Years of China's Space Industry as saying in 1978 that China would not join the space race, and efforts should be pulled together to develop application satellites that were urgently needed and of practical use.
But sometimes, even a nation cannot follow its own will, and instead follow the global tide.
In the 1980s, the world experienced a new round of competition in science and technology. The then US president Ronald Reagan in 1983 introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a defense project that aimed to use ground and space-based systems for protecting the US from attacks by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union also introduced its own strategic defense plan. European nations established the European Research Coordination Agency (EUREKA) to coordinate advanced technology projects being carried out by European companies. Japan, India and Brazil also followed and adopted their own high-tech development plans.
Identifying this trend, four top Chinese scientists wrote a letter in March 1986 to the government, suggesting that China should also catch up with the tide by developing cutting-edge technologies. They added that some of the important high technologies needed to be developed over a period of time and could not be purchased. If China missed the trend now, it would be difficult to catch up later, they wrote.
The suggestion received immediate response from authorities and a green signal was given to a high-tech development project code named 863, with manned space flight a part of the overall program.
In 1992, the manned space flight program was finally approved, and outlined a three-step path for developing a reliable spacecraft to transport humans, master the key manned spaceflight technologies, and eventually assemble a space station.
The first unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou I was launched in 1999, followed by three more unmanned space flights, all of which were successful. In 2003, the country's first manned spacecraft Shenzhou V put Yang Liwei into orbit, and he stayed in space for 21 hours. In 2005, two more astronauts went to space on board the Shenzhou VI and stayed in orbit for five days.
China moved to the second phase of its space program with the Shenzhou VII launch in 2008. The mission put three astronauts in space, with one of them also carrying out China's first space walk. Scientists also conducted spacecraft rendezvous and docking technologies in space.
Last September, an unmanned space lab module Tiangong-1 was launched, and docked with the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft in November. At some point between June and August, China will launch the Shenzhou IX spacecraft with three crew-members attempting to manually dock with the Tiangong-1. Around 2016, China will also launch a space laboratory to conclude the second phase.
China is also planning to assemble a 60-ton space station around 2020 in the third and final step of its manned spaceflight program.
Around the time the manned spaceflight program was mooted in 1992, space scientists also floated a proposal to conduct lunar missions. But with limited economic and technical strength, more attention was given to manned spaceflights, according to China Lunar Exploration Program, a book compiled by the former Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense in 2007.
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the program and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that China was "pushed" by the global trends to start lunar explorations.
The lunar exploration program, Chang'e, named after the Chinese moon goddess, got the government nod in 2004. The program has three stages - circling, landing and returning with soil samples.
China's first lunar orbiter, Chang'e-1, was launched on Oct 24, 2007, making China the world's fifth country to launch a lunar orbiter. The second orbiter, Chang'e-2, was launched in 2010 to test some key technologies for a soft-landing on the moon by Chang'e-3 next year. Eventually, China hopes to return lunar soil samples to Earth before 2020.