Chinese space program advancing quickly
A Long March 2F rocket carrying a Shenzhou-8 spacecraft in China in October 2011.
March 16th, 2012
12:01 AM ET

Chinese space program advancing quickly

The Chinese space program is advancing, and fast, to the point that the country's ambition has become a campaign issue in the United States.

China plans to establish its own space lab around 2016 and assemble a 60-ton manned space station around 2020, when the current International Space Station is estimated to likely retire, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in November. China has also begun efforts to explore the moon using space robotics. The eventual goal: a manned lunar landing.

This exploration comes as the United States has been scaling back its plans and funding for space exploration.

In recent debates among presidential aspirants in the Republican Party, candidates criticized America’s flagging space program. Mitt Romney called for a partnership among "corporate America as well as the defense network and others" to "create a plan that will keep our space program thriving and growing."

Newt Gingrich cited China's soaring ambitions. "Every serious analyst understands that the Chinese are going all out to dominate space," Gingrich said. "I would like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there."

To be sure, China is still decades away from a moon landing.

Chinese officials speak of a three-step manned space flight plan: send a person into orbit, dock spacecraft together to form a small space lab and ultimately build a large space station.

“They are currently in step two,” says Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College. “For comparative purposes, it’s about where the U.S. was during the Gemini program.”

China has developed its own spaceship, the Shenzhou, or Divine Vessel, which observers say resembles Russia’s Soyuz space capsule. Over the years, it has upgraded its launch vehicles, built new spaceflight facilities and trained a stable of astronauts.

Still, China did not put a man in space until 2003, 41 years after John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. (Alan Shepard was the first American to fly in space, in 1961.) That year, Col. Yang Liwei orbited the Earth 14 times aboard the Shenzhou 5 space capsule.

Yang’s voyage has enhanced China’s image overseas and boosted national pride at home. Only Russia, the United States and China have sent astronauts to space.

Before that, China's space program was largely seen as capable but lacking in sophistication.

I saw that myself up close.

In August 1997, I had the rare chance to visit the Xichang Satellite Launching Center in rural Sichuan province to observe the launch of Mabuhay, the first Filipino communications satellite.

Inside a windowless building, we watched Chinese staff work frenetically behind rows of computers and panels. They struck me as quite unassuming in their white wrinkled robes, which made them look more like doctors in a hospital ward than aerospace experts.

There was palpable anxiety before the launch.

Two years earlier, a rocket exploded at this launch site after liftoff and killed several people on the ground. This time, when the Chinese-made rocket rumbled skyward, the crowd in the hall cheered.

The glitch-less launch restored China’s reputation and self-confidence.

China has been vying for a bigger slice of the lucrative satellite-launch market. China is also looking to harness aerospace technology for spinoffs in telecommunications, weather forecasting, agriculture, medicine and navigation.

If the trajectory remains unchanged, experts say, China’s space activities may well surpass those of Russia and the European Space Agency in a decade or so. That will position China just next to the United States as a dominant space power.

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soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

    Is it just me or does that photo look fake? The rocket and space center look like they are made of Lego’s.

    March 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  2. Frankhy

    Face it. With popular sentiments, and even the vast majority of Republican candiates basically going "Science? LOL, we got the Bible, and don't care what them darned scientists say, damn liberals all of them" – it's naive to think that the US have a future based on science and technological progress. Especially with education falling rapidly behind. The way things are heading, the US will be a second rate nation that relies on it's military, agriculture and old some low tech service business.

    March 16, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  3. Snap

    Gingrich said. "I would like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there."

    Does this mean Newt is one of those conspiracy people that say we didn't already land on the moon?

    March 16, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Eyeball73

      Ha! Good Question. And, yes. I believe he is one of those theorists that believe the "hoax"

      March 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
      • Jens

        So i love the MIUI rom, and the phone looks nice . but IMO WAAAAAY too iphone like. Android gets enugoh crap from apple fan boys a phone that looks just like an iphone but runs android is just not good. lol Again, this is just my opinion but i absolutely love the ROM its my daily driver.

        September 13, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • Hot Dog

      Who said Americans had been to the moon? The moon landing was photoshopped that was done in the Holiwood studio. Get over it. No Americans had been to the moon. That is FACT!

      April 3, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  4. intothemoonbeam

    Unless the United States starts to spend less on military and more on space exploration and science we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in these area's. It is vital to the future of America that we invest as much as possible into science and space exploration.

    Before you start to complain about it being a waste of money please understand that NASA is only 0.6% of the national budget. During those pointless wars we were in the military was spending more money in one year than all of the military's combined in the rest of the world. My point is not nearly enough money is being put into NASA and Science.

    March 16, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • JA

      I agree with you moonbeam.
      1903-first flight on earth
      1969-we are on the moon
      2012-just orbiting earth

      where is the ingenuity? We should be to pluto and back by now.

      March 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm |

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