The Far-reaching Nature of China's Space Program
   2012-06-18 17:24:26      Web Editor: yangyang66

By Stuart Wiggin

Following the successful launch of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft this past weekend; China's space program takes one step further towards its lofty goals in an effort to carve out a unique path within the world of space exploration and science. But how significant is the aim of achieving a manual docking procedure considering that the current occupation of the Tiangong-1 space lab puts the Chinese space program at the same point that the U.S. and Russian programs were at during the mid 70s. 

From an American perspective, having viewed NASA's achievements under the Kennedy administration and thereafter, Shenzhou-9's manual docking procedure may seem a little underwhelming in terms of scale to observers within America. And indeed, a manual docking procedure is underwhelming compared to NASA's achievements. However, to look at the procedure in relation to the achievements of NASA may be missing the point slightly. Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, which focuses on scientific issues in the context of public policy, was quoted by Xinhua stating, "It is the speed with which China is ticking off these boxes in developing their program that is interesting." Aside from the rapid speed of development, which Kueter rightly points out, the Chinese determination to carve its own niche within space is doubly impressive.

The construction of a Chinese space station, the manual and automatic docking procedures attempted by previous and current Shenzhou missions, and the achievement of manned space flight are not groundbreaking feats from a technological standpoint. In 1971, Russia orbited the first station of their Salyut program, while NASA launched its Skylab in 1973. However, the timeframe within which these things have been achieved by the Chinese space program is impressive considering the country's late entry to the space race, which has all but been abandoned by the U.S. As Roger Launius, historian with the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington told the NewScientist, "The fact that China is going it alone here is significant." Launius went on to state, "it gains critical experience for China in long-duration missions, rendezvous and docking C something it must do to close the gap between it and the other space faring nations."

The government white paper outlining China's space activities for the next five years, published last December, noted that the Chinese space program will encourage international exchanges and cooperation so as to promote inclusive space development on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, peaceful utilization and common development. As a result, the Chinese space program provides another avenue by which to strengthen ties between China and the rest of the developing world. China already has a bilateral space cooperation program with Brazil and during Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's recent visit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Beijing, the China National Space Administration and the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission signed a space cooperation plan which will last until 2020. Elsewhere, China also has bilateral agreements with Germany, France, Britain, Russia and Ukraine as well as the European Space Agency.

The Chinese determination to pursue their own research in space resulted after being spurned from inclusion within the International Space Station project following objections from the U.S. Of course, there remains an overtly political tone to the Chinese space program. As Ma Yongping pointed out, "We can proudly say that the program has become a key indicator of the prosperous development of socialism with Chinese characteristics." In this sense, the success of this and all future missions helps to confirm the establishments position from a social, scientific and political perspective. Furthermore, the political positives that the Chinese space program produces mean that the program remains largely free from the budgetary constraints that confine NASA operations; though no official figures have been released on spending related to the Chinese space program.

Regarding the specifics of this latest mission, Ma Yongping, Deputy Director of the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, stated that the manual docking procedure, the highlight of this mission, should be considered a simple combination of manned space flight and unmanned automatic docking. "The requirements for a manual docking are much stricter than those for an automatic docking," stated Ma. "Since the two vehicles will be moving very fast in orbit at a speed of 7.8 kilometers per second, the astronauts must be very careful to ensure the vehicles remain a certain distance apart and do not collide with each other during the docking process." Engineers have described the process as akin to threading a needle between two objects traveling in the air at incredibly high speeds.

The success of the Shenzhou-9 mission is no doubt likely to draw the ire of certain commentators within the U.S., who lament the decline of NASA as a leader within the field of space exploration. At the start of the year, an editorial in the Washington Post referred to the "sagging" nature of the U.S. space program, sarcastically commenting that American astronauts now have to buy seats on Russian rockets just to reach the International Space Station. The frustration of certain sections of American society highlights the importance of a successful space program for the pride of a superpower nation. Ultimately, the Chinese Space Program is hitting all the key points and has even managed to elevate the status of women within Chinese society thanks to the inclusion of China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, on the current Shenzhou-9 mission.

These views do not reflect the views of CRI.



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