Earth from space
China is aiming for orbit and beyond. Image: futurilla/Flickr/CC BY-SA

China has announced the launch of a new spacecraft. With the demise of the shuttle program and the future of American space flight in question, many in the U.S. fear losing dominance in space.

A Chinese space station

Tiangong I is a boxcar sized module that China will attempt to put into orbit in August as the first piece of a proposed space station. China plans to open its station in 2020, the year that the International Space Station is scheduled to close.

History of Chinese space travel

In 1970, China successfully launched a satellite into orbit that endlessly broadcasted the patriotic song Dongfang hong (The East is Red). The man mainly credited for the success of the early program was Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), an engineer who once worked for the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif. He was expelled for suspected Communist leanings.

The Cultural Revolution brought the program to a standstill in the early 1970s. It was revived in the 1980s but took off in the 1990s under Jiang Zemin, who used it as a political platform and to reinforce party ideals of science over superstition.

In 2003, Shenzhou V launched taikonaut (astronaut) Yang Liwei into space, making China the third country to successfully launch a man into space. In 2005, Shenzhou VI launched a crew of two into orbit for three days. In 2008, Shengzhou VII hosted the first Chinese walk in space.

More flights planned

Shengzhou VIII is scheduled to launch in October of this year. It will be an unmanned mission attempting to dock with the Tiangong 1 to pave the way for a 2012 manned docking. China also hopes to put a man on the moon by 2020.

Planning ahead

Experts point out that though China is still far behind us in space technology it does not have the hindrances to move ahead that we face in the U.S. China has a booming economy and is bereft of the political sparring that is characteristic of U.S. politics in the 21st century.

“One of the biggest advantages of their system,” said Peter Bond of Jane’s Space Systems and Industry, “is that they have five-year plans so they can develop well ahead. … They are putting all the pieces together for a very capable, advanced space industry.”

Dominance in space

Some space flight experts are concerned that China may surpass the U.S. in space exploration. Scott Pace, an associate NASA administrator from the George W. Bush administration, said:

“Space leadership is highly symbolic of national capabilities and international influence, and a decline in space leadership will be seen as symbolic of a relative decline in U.S. power and influence.”

Others are concerned about China’s military-run space program. Four years ago, China launched missiles at one of its dead satellites, which many found disturbing.

Chinese experts, however, say their goal is about national pride and scientific knowledge, not dominance. Shanghai University Science and Law Professor He Qisong said:

“China has lagged 20 to 40 years behind the U.S. in developing space programs, and China has no intention of challenging U.S. dominance in space. But it is a sign of the national spirit for China to develop a space program and therefore it is of great significance for China.”


Chinese Posters:
NASA Spaceflight:

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