CHINA IN SPACE: A Look at China's Ambitious Space Program
[a:href="http:\/\/www.21stcenturysciencetech.com\/2006_articles\/China's_Space_Program.pdf";title="China Space Program"]A Look at China's Ambitious Space Program[/a]
by Marsha Freeman
Throughout the 40 years of the Cold War, legions of space
and military analysts in the West made a career of trying
to figure out what the Soviet Union was up to in space.
By the early 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the
establishment of a space agency in Moscow, its civilian space
programs became more transparent, obviating the need for
much of the sleuthing, and creating new opportunities for
At about the same time, the attention of Western analysts
shifted to scrutiny of China’s space efforts. Like the former
Soviet Union, China was carrying out its closely guarded
space projects under the umbrella of the military. But China’s
space program became an increasing object of interest as
there were indications it would be embarking on a project to
put a man into space.
Although a nation can try to keep its space research and
development projects secret, once a satellite is space-borne, it
is visible to all. In 1999, with no prior announcement, the
unmanned Shenzhou I spacecraft went into Earth orbit.
Although it looked similar to the Russian manned workhorse,
the Soyuz, which the Russians had earlier shared with China,
differences were noted by analysts. It was clear that China was
testing a spacecraft that it was developing on its own, which
would, at some point, carry astronauts into space.
For the first time, Chinese space officials spoke publicly about
the Shenzhou I mission while it was still under way, and the
amount of information that was released to the media was almost
as surprising as the mission itself. There were indications that
China was opening up its space program to international eyes.
Speculation about what China was planning in space
increased. China watchers, and “red scare” partisans on
Capitol Hill, tried to make the case that China’s space program
was entirely vectored toward military technology and advantage,
and that this was a security threat to the United States.
In an effort to make its intentions more transparent, therefore,
in November 2000, China took an unprecedented step, and
released, in English, a White Paper laying out its 20-year perspective
for space development. After reviewing the accomplishments
of China’s space program and its plans for advances
in weather, remote sensing, communications, and navigational
satellites, the White Paper stated officially, for the first time, that
“early in the 21st Century” China would become the third
nation in the world to launch a man into space.
After four unmanned tests of its Shenzhou spacecraft, in
October 2003, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei entered Earth
orbit and the history books. Two years later, a pair of astronauts
extended the time in orbit and capabilities of China’s
manned space program.
For the next manned mission, planned for 2007, Chinese astronauts
will leave their Shenzhou capsule to perform a space walk
in orbit, a necessary step toward later rendezvous and docking
with a space station. In April, China’s Chang’e lunar orbiter will
be launched, laying the basis for the manned exploration of the
Moon at the end of the second decade of this century.
American space supporters, hoping that Chinese spectaculars
will help galvanize American policy-makers into increasing support
for underfunded U.S. space programs, impatiently complain
that China is going “too slow.” But China is clearly not in a “space
[img:align=right;class=pictures;date=2007-07-09;desc="Artist%27s+drawing+of+the+lunar+orbiter%2C+to+be+launched+in+2007+in+China%27s+first+deep+space+mission.";height=194;layout=sourced;pid=4154;size=article;source="Chinese+Academy+of+Space+Technology";src="\/files\/pictures\/72c6ac530f764a883b7d950ce8127fac\/article.jpg";title="Lunar+Orbiter";width=250]race” with the United States, or any other nation. When officialsare asked when China will have a space station or send people tothe Moon, the answer that is most likely is: “when we are ready.”The reason is, that it is the process of developing space applicationsand technology, and the human and industrial resources,that is most important to China, not a particular goal.
Economic Development Strategy
On Oct. 21, 2006, the State Council of the People’s
Republic of China released a second English-language space
policy report, of 10 pages, titled “China’s Space Activities in
2006,” “in order to give people around the world a better
understanding of the development of China’s space industry
over the past five years, and its plans for the near future.”
Although manned flight is China’s most high-profile space
activity, it is not the program that garners the major level of
government attention or support.
The year-2000 paper stated that “China’s fundamental tasks
are developing its economy and continuously pushing forward
its modernization drive.” One of the goals six years ago was an
Earth-observation system for “long-term stable operation,”
including meteorological, land remote-sensing, ocean-sensing,
and disaster-monitoring satellites. These programs are either
well under way, or have been accomplished. As the recent
paper reports, over the past five years, China has developed
and launched 22 different types of Earth-orbiting satellites.
Data from its remote sensing satellites are being applied to
major state projects, the recent Space Activities paper reports,
such as the South-North Water Diversion Project, the Three
Gorges Dam Project, and the Project to Transmit Natural Gas
from West to East.
By the end of 2005, China had more than 80 international
and domestic telecommunications and broadcasting Earth stations,
and 34 satellite broadcasting and television link stations,
with the goal of giving “every village access to broadcasting
and TV,” and “to give every village access to telephones.” A
satellite-based distance-learning education network and a
satellite-based telemedicine network have been established.
Six years ago, China stressed the need to accelerate the
applications of space technology, by encouraging enterprises
engaged in such work to help “renovate institutions and technology.”
This requires “spinning off” technology developed for
space exploration into other industrial sectors, and the economy
as a whole, “to meet a wide range of demands of economic
construction, state security, and science and technology
development and social progress.”
In its recent paper, China reports that over the next five years,
it will “accelerate the industrialization of space activities,” in
order to “upgrade traditional industries,” or what is generally
described as technology transfer. In order to do this, the paper
states, China will put emphasis on “sparing no efforts for the
education and cultivation” of young people. The government
plans to “encourage people from all walks of life to participate
in space-related activities.”
China has made a great effort to bring information and
the excitement about its space program to young people.
The main exhibit prominently displayed inside the
entrance to the Beijing Science and Technology Museum
is a Shenzhou capsule. Student competitions, travelling
space exhibits, appearances by astronauts, and science
fairs in China are reminiscent of the excitement about
space exploration in the United States during the 1960s
Apollo missions to the Moon.
Answering questions from students after a presentation
on China’s space program in Beijing in July,
Academician Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of
China’s lunar program, explained that China cannot be
left out of the enterprise that advances great nations.
A Worldwide Enterprise
Since the start of its 1980s “opening up” to the outside
world, China has embarked on a two-pronged
international cooperation policy. It carries out joint
projects “reinforcing cooperation with developing
countries,” especially “attaching importance to space
cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region,” while pursuing
cooperation on advanced projects with established
Since its initial cooperation with the Soviet Union decades
ago, China has established bilateral, government-to-government
space cooperation agreements with more than two
dozen nations. While cooperation with the Soviet Union
waxed and waned as did political relations, China’s Shenzhou
spacecraft designers first learned about the technology necessary
for manned spaceflight from the Soyuz, and the Chinese
astronauts were trained in Russia.
As China’s space program has progressed, so has the content
of its cooperation with Russia. There are ongoing talks between
space experts and political leaders of both nations, with suggestions
that China may participate in Russia’s planned mission
to Phobos, a moon of Mars. Russia, it is reported, will join
China in the later stages of its lunar program.
“We are currently working on the Moon as partners, and we
have concluded that Russia and China have moved beyond
their previous relationship, when[img:align=right;class=pictures;date=2007-07-09;desc="Two+Shenzhou+astronauts+in+training";layout=sourced;pid=4155;size=article;source="Courtesy+of+China+Space+News";src="\/files\/pictures\/3d27e93d510eadf6f7efe3a0cb552aa1\/article.jpg";title="Two+Shenzhou+astronauts+in+training"] China was a buyer and we were a
seller,” Russian space agency head, Anatoli Perminov, said in September. “We have already adopted a cooperation program
with China for 2007-2009. China is now a leading space power.”
One of China’s most successful and in-depth space cooperation programs is with Brazil—a nation also of the “south,” and also embarked on a broad-ranging program of developing its own satellites and launch vehicles. In October 2003, the joint Sino-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite was launched, and an agreement to build three additional satellites is in force.
China has worked for many years with the European Space Agency on
an array of projects, from instructing scientists on the use of Earth remotesensing data, in the “Dragon Program,” to the joint Double Star
mission to explore the mysteries of the Sun. Over the past five years,
China has signed cooperation agreements with Argentina, Canada, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Ukraine, and conducted exchanges
with space-related organizations in Algeria, Chile, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Peru.
In 1992, China, Thailand, and Pakistan, later joined by other
nations, sponsored the Asian-Pacific Multilateral Space
Technology Cooperation Symposium. Then, joined by Iran, the
Republic of Korea, and Mongolia, in April 1998 China signed a
Memorandum of Understanding to develop small multi-mission
satellites. Small satellites are an ideal avenue through which nonspace
countries can gain access to education, training, and basic
In October 2005, representatives of China, Bangladesh,
Indonesia, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Peru, and Thailand signed
the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO)
Convention in Beijing. A year later, Turkey signed. APSCO
headquarters will be in Beijing, with the aim of developing
programs to make available to these nations the technology
and applications of space development.
With or Without the United States
Ten years ago, during a trip to China, former Senator and
astronaut John Glenn stated in Beijing that if the United States
did not invite China to participate in the then-evolving
International Space Station, China would build its own. Aside
from what is necessarily gained in any collaboration on challenging
science and engineering endeavors, refusing to cooperate
in space as a way of “punishing” China for policies that do
not meet U.S. approval, has only led China to develop its own
indigenous technology, industry, and technical manpower.
Further, it has encouraged China[img:align=right;class=pictures;date=2007-07-09;desc="The+Chinese+spacecraft+Shenzhou+after+its+return+from+an+unmanned+test+in+November+1999.";height=250;layout=standalone;pid=4156;size=article;source=CCTV;src="\/files\/pictures\/a3bdb5a015bc609a6b0a7bedf933cd98\/article.jpg";title=Shenzhou;width=168]
to seek partnerships with other
spacefaring nations, which it has
done very successfully. Marching
to its own “human rights” and
“export control” drum, the United
States is now the only nation of significance in space that is not cooperating with the world’s most
impressive emerging space power.
There has been prodding from
Democrats and Republicans on
Capitol Hill to find areas of common
interest in space cooperation
with China—until recently, without
positive response from the Bush
Administration. But pressure from
Congress, the aerospace/defense
industry, and space supporters, not
to mention China’s accomplishments
in manned spaceflight, led
to NASA’s announcement that Administrator Mike Griffin would accept the China National Space Administration’s invitation to visit its academies and manufacturing facilities, and talk with its officials.
Before his trip in September 2006, Griffin was skeptical, repeating the non sequitur that there were still things we disagreed with the Chinese on, such as human rights. But whatever his preconceived notions about China, the Chinese, or their space program, Griffin was impressed with what China is doing in space.
While in China, Mike Griffin met with his counterpart, the
head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Sun
Laiyan; he met with the Minister of Science and Technology;
he toured some of China’s premier space research and design
facilities; and he talked to graduate students at the Chinese
Academy of Sciences.
In a press conference on Sept. 25, U.S. Ambassador to
China, Clark Randt, whose father worked for NASA in the
1950s, located Administrator Griffin’s visit as “another indication
of the growth in our relationship with China.” In a somewhat
surprising statement, Griffin said that “one of my purposes
here was to convey, on behalf of our nation, our congratulations
to, and appreciation of, China’s accomplishments
in space, being only the third nation to develop its own capability
to put people in space.”
Although NASA did not take Chinese officials up on their
offer to visit the Beijing command center where manned
spacecraft are controlled, or the launch site, so as not to give
the Chinese the impression that the United States is willing to
put manned space cooperation on the table, Dr. Griffin said at
the press conference that he “particularly enjoyed the visit to
CAST [China Academy of Space Technology], seeing the facilities
that have been used to develop the Shenzhou spacecraft.”
“We welcome China to the fraternity of spacefaring nations,”
Griffin said. On the question of cooperation, Griffin explained
that “the problems of spaceflight, whether human or robotic, are
very difficult. They are right at the edge of what is technically
possible, and, indeed when nations become able to conduct
spaceflight activities . . . it is a symbol of very significant technological
prowess. . . . [o]ne of things that we derive from international
cooperative activities is seeing how different nations and
different cultures solve those problems. We learn things; they
learn things . . . this is rocket science, and it is very demanding.”
NASA and CNSA agreed to discuss sharing Earth remotesensing
data, data from each of their upcoming lunar orbiters, and
from environmental and weather satellites, and then to explore
the possibility of placing instruments on each other’s future
lunar spacecraft. The specifics of cooperation will be detailed[img:align=right;class=pictures;date=2007-07-09;desc="China%E2%80%99s+first+astronaut%2C+Yang+Liwei%2C+here+with+the+author%2C+at+the%0D%0Aannual+Congress+of+the+International+Astronautical+Federation%2C%0D%0Aheld+in+Valencia%2C+Spain%2C+in+October+2006.";height=178;layout=sourced;pid=4158;size=article;source="William+Jones\/EIRNS";src="\/files\/pictures\/ca20c7b4e999a29aeb353195d93447c4\/article.jpg";title="China%27s+first+astronaut";width=250]
by working-level American and Chinese space officials.
More important than any particular program, the decision was made
for annual high-level talks on space cooperation, to raise new
ideas and have oversight over the projects and data coordination
efforts that were outlined in the initial, September meeting.
At the press conference, Administrator Griffin was asked to
give an example of Chinese space technology that impressed
him. He provided an answer only after being goaded by the
press, and apologizing beforehand for what he said would be
a “geeky” answer. “For example,” he said, “we saw a very nice
algorithm today by which Chinese weather satellite developers
correct for the apparent motion of the Earth as a result of
minor shifts in the orbit of geostationary spacecraft.” In fact,
sharing breakthroughs and developments, and solving problems
across barriers, to the benefit of all parties, and in spite of
other differences, is what cooperation should be based on.
As has been observed by Russian space official Anatoli Perminov,
and recently also by Mike Griffin, China has made impressive
strides in space. It is now in a position to contribute to, and not
just benefit from, international cooperation. And it will be going
forward in space exploration, with or without the United States.
The Lunar Beijing Declaration In July 2006, representatives of 18 nations attending the eighth conference of the International Lunar Exploration Working group in Beijing, signed a declaration committing the spacefaring nations to coordinate the upcoming missions to the Moon, to be launched in the next two years. China, India, Japan, and the United States have spacecraft in preparation, and the European Space Agency’s SMART- 1 spacecraft is completing its oneyear lunar mission.
The Lunar Beijing Declaration affirmed that when these four new spacecraft begin their missions, “our understanding of the Moon[img:align=right;class=pictures;date=2007-07-09;desc="College+students+are+competing+to+design+the+lunar+robot.+This+model+was+demostrated+at+the+Beijing+COnference.";height=231;layout=sourced;pid=4157;size=article;source="Marsha+Freeman\/EIRNS";src="\/files\/pictures\/d39f7f08bb506616aba34da6002980ef\/article.jpg";title="The+Lunar+Beijing+Declaration";width=202]
and its resources will be revolutionized as the rich array of data from this flotilla is analyzed around the world.” It proposes a series of international actions to optimize the return from the coming missions.
Should the proposals be
implemented, cooperation among
the world’s leading nations will
proceed on the highest level, the
exploration of the Solar System.
The delegates also adopted a proposal for an International Lunar
Decade, modelled on the International Geophysical Year of 1957- 1958, which promoted the study of the Earth, and during which the first Earth-orbiting satellite was launched
into space. The proposed Lunar Decade would span the 2007 launching of the new robotic lunar orbiters, to the approximate 2019 planned manned return to the Moon.
One of the goals of the Declaration is to “inspire a new generation of lunar explorers.” To that end, China’s National Space Administration sponsored a public day during the July conference, which brought 300 students into contact with top lunar scientists and program managers.