Innovation need of the hour
Updated: 2012-04-27 08:47
By Zhang Yongjin (China Daily)
Cultural, scientific, technological imagination hold key to China's space dreams
Looking back at the five decades of man in space, there are two contrasting developments that may prove to be of particular significance for future endeavors.
In August, one month after the space shuttle Atlantis flew its last mission, the NASA pulled the plug on its 30-year space shuttle program.
In September, China successfully launched Tiangong-1, an unmanned space laboratory module. In November, the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 module.
While the NASA decision has grounded the space ambitions of the United States, the Tiangong-1 mission can be seen as a take-off point for China's space dreams.
Over the last decade, China's space program has seen a number of accomplishments and breakthroughs. The successful launch of the Shenzhou V spacecraft in 2003 made China the third nation, after the former Soviet Union and the US, with independent capability to put man in space.
Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2, the two unmanned moon orbiters launched successfully in 2007 and 2010, signaled the completion of the first phase of the ambitious Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), whose final goal is to achieve a lunar landing, putting Chinese astronauts on the moon and returning them safely back to Earth, possibly by around 2030.
The construction of China's own global navigation system, Beidou, which is scheduled to provide satellite navigation services to customers in the Asia-Pacific in 2012, and become fully global by 2020, is another case in point.
The Tiangong-1 module was launched as a platform to help Chinese scientists master the rendezvous and docking (RVD) technologies and marked the beginning of China's multiphase program to construct a large space laboratory station of its own by 2020.
China's achievements are truly commendable, considering that there are hardly any alliances between China and the US on space programs.
Much of China's space capabilities were shaped by the 863 Program and later by Project 921. What was similar to both programs was the added importance given to scientific and technological innovation.
Most of China's space ambitions are outlined in the white paper China's Space Activities in 2011. It articulates a clear purpose for space exploration, outlines an effective five-year plan for the space industry development (2012-17), and specifies the multiple economic and social benefits for the nation.
The launch of the manned Shenzhou-IX spacecraft, which will transport the first Chinese astronauts to work in the Tiangong-1 module for setting up China's space station, is another indicator of the space goals.
All of these may give rise to the question: what is it that drives China in space? The answer to this is scientific and technological innovation, now defined as the fundamental driver for economic and social development in China.
One can never overstate the pivotal place that China's space program occupies in China's National Innovation System (NIS).
This should be further considered in the context of the government vision to transform China into an innovative nation by 2020, and to become the world leader in science and technology by 2050.
Admittedly, in terms of space science and technology, China lags considerably behind the two major space-faring nations, the US and Russia, which have had decades of headstart.
Unlike a decade ago, China now has the ability to mobilize sufficient resources and also the required technological and engineering capabilities along with a robust industrial and scientific infrastructure to shape its space dreams.
It is also important to remember that most of the ground-breaking innovations in space science and technology have always been stimulated and limited by imagination, be it cultural, scientific or technological.
By the same token, it is the cultural, scientific and technological imagination that will ultimately determine the success (or failure) of China, as a space-faring nation and its contributions to space exploration.
The author is professor of international politics at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol.