China's long march in space

Updated: 2013-06-14 08:12

By Zhao Gang (China Daily)

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China's long march in space

The Shenzhou X spacecraft, with three astronauts on board, blasted off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province and entered its designated orbit on Tuesday. At noon on Thursday, it successfully docked with the Tiangong-1, a target orbiter and space module.

The latest launch, China's fifth manned mission within just 10 years of its first such mission into space, demonstrates the country's steady progress in manned space operations. The smooth launch also ushers in the first application-oriented flight of the Shenzhou spacecraft, which was preceded by years of both unmanned and manned test spaceflights since 1999.

Shenzhou X and the upgraded Long March-2F carrier rocket constitute China's Earth-to-space transport system, which can ferry astronauts and supplies between Earth and the in-orbit Tiangong-1 space module and support scientific experiments in the target orbiter.

As such, there are no drastic changes in Shenzhou X in the technical sense, except for a few adjustments from Shenzhou IX, which include upgraded internal environmental control and life support system. Still, Shenzhou X marks a giant leap in China's space program, because it provides technological guarantee for assembling a space station in orbit, which holds great significance for a rising space-faring nation like China.

As is well known, the United States and Russia agreed to join their space station efforts in 1993. Since 1998, they have also been collaborating with other major powers, including Japan and 10 member states of the European Space Agency, in the International Space Station program.

The US, however, has played a pivotal role in preventing China from participating in the so-called family of space-faring nations. Washington issued the Cox Report in 1999, which accuses China of nuclear spying and stealing military technology from the US. The report and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, which prohibits exports of US-origin satellites, missile equipment and other related technologies to China, rule out the possibility of space cooperation between China and the US.

Despite the US straight-arming China from joining the ISS program, Beijing's space mission continues to thrive, and the successful launch of Shenzhou X shows that it has moved one step closer to building its own space station by 2020.

China is the third country to independently send humans into space and conduct extra-vehicular activities. It is now one of the top countries in overall space prowess. And its homegrown navigation satellite system Beidou aims to grab 70-80 percent of the domestic market share from GPS and is expected to achieve full-scale global coverage possibly by 2020.

Besides, China has maintained a high frequency of orbital launches in recent years, with last year alone witnessing 19 launches, next to Russia in numbers but topping the ranking with a 100 percent success rate.

Compared with China's steady advancement, the US has slowed down its space exploration, with the US government-led Space Shuttle Program coming to a stop in 2011 and the National Aeronautical and Space Administration planning to de-orbit the ISS in 2016 for lack of long-term funding.

The waxing and waning of the US space program and China's growing space capability have evoked mixed reactions in the US. Some US observers highlight the so-called dual-use nature of China's robust space programs, designed to fulfill military and non-military missions, to add thrust to their "China threat" theory. Marcia Smith, founder and editor of, has said that while there certainly are people in US Congress who don't want to see the country fall behind China in manned space programs, even the success of the Shenzhou X mission will not change Congress's decision on NASA's future.

Some observers are optimistic about Sino-US cooperation, though. The Atlantic Monthly once published an article, China's Space Race is America's Opportunity, saying it is worth considering whether aspects of the US-Russian experience in space cooperation can be pursued with China to serve long-term American interests.

Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists has said China's human spaceflight program now seems to be less threatening to US observers who originally viewed it with some suspicion. A more relaxed US attitude toward the program, combined with the slow but steady pace of Chinese progress in human spaceflights, may create opportunities for Sino-US cooperation and collaboration in space, Kulacki has said.

Regardless of the US' attitude, China will steadily advance its space exploration program. As some Chinese experts have said, at a time when China's space technology shows the potential of matching that of the US, Washington continues to adopt a containment approach. After China achieves major breakthroughs in space technology on its own strength, the US will have to adopt a policy of engagement and seek bilateral cooperation.

The Shenzhou X mission is exceptionally important for China's space dream. It will help boost national confidence, and astronauts will deliver their first lecture from space to school students, which will inspire youths' passion for space projects.

Besides, the commercial value of manned space missions will be realized after the successful transition of test spaceflights to application-oriented flights, which will generate benefits for a wide range of industries, including the manufacturing, energy and electro-mechanical sectors, and thus stimulate economic growth.

More importantly, it will also create more global cooperation opportunities for China. As China makes steady progress in space technology and inches closer to building its own space station, more countries, developed and developing both, are showing a keen interest in working with China. China already has cooperated with Russia, Brazil and some European countries. People within the US' space industry have also called for cooperation with China.

It is thus imperative for China to consolidate the existing cooperation and expand joint space projects and partnerships in order to enable its space sector to gain more global influence.

The author is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development.