Skip to comments.China's great leap forward: Space
Posted on 12/09/2001 5:37:25 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
SHANGHAI -- A well-known Chinese proverb says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
That first step isn't far away, as China begins a much longer odyssey that could reshape the Space Age balance of power.
Within the next two years, China is expected to become the first country to launch people into orbit since the United States and the former Soviet Union did so more than four decades ago. This effort, cryptically dubbed Project 921, has been cloaked in state-imposed secrecy from the start.
While low Earth orbit is the immediate destination, the ultimate goal of China's communist leaders is a place near the pinnacle of global economic and military power. The world's most populous country is spending billions on its fledgling human spaceflight program. The hope is to spark a technological revolution that could help catapult a largely agrarian impoverished society into the 21st century.
"The space industry is not only a reflection of the comprehensive national strength but also an important tool for leaping over the traditional developing stage," said Liu Jibin, minister of China's Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
If China makes that leap, the country's civil and military space efforts could close the gap between East and West in years instead of decades. Technology is critical to China's development of bigger, better missiles and space-based defenses as well as the country's commercial ambitions. Market reforms and cheap labor already are turning a once-stagnant, planned economy into a powerhouse.
Signs of the transformation can be seen everywhere in China's cities. Bumper-to-bumper car traffic has replaced bicycle gridlock. McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are almost as common as traditional roadside food stalls. Chairman Mao's wardrobe has been mothballed in favor of Western fashions. Handbills and posters are more likely to tout the qualities of European cigarettes than the virtues of class struggle.
One thing, however, hasn't changed: Most of China's space program remains closed to the outside world. Even so, a few Chinese officials are cautiously -- almost reluctantly -- beginning to open up.
A two-week tour of Chinese aerospace facilities this fall and talks with high-level managers, many of whom have been off-limits to Americans, revealed this about the country's mysterious manned program:
China likely will launch its first astronaut sometime in 2003 after six or so unpiloted test flights of its manned spacecraft. The next test flight -- the third overall -- is expected to blast off before the end of January.
Preliminary design of a Chinese space station already is under way. A modest outpost with limited capabilities could be developed during the next decade.
And there's even talk of sending people to the moon and building lunar bases in the next decade. But that won't happen without stunning technological advances and unprecedented funding. Neither is likely any time soon.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel and Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine -- his first ever with Western journalists -- administrator Luan Enjie of the China National Space Administration says China's leadership is proceeding slowly but surely.
"China's situation only allows us to take the first step, then to look for the next step," said Luan, who also is a member of the country's governing Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. "As the administrator, I can look very far. But those are unreliable and unrealistic goals we could not identify or define at this stage. So we have to take a step-by-step approach."
Some of China's best and brightest are working on those steps in a gleaming office tower in one of Shanghai's sprawling industrial districts. A massive flying saucer reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood B-movie fare guards the main entrance and provides the only clue to the sort of activities inside.
This morning, two American reporters are touring the once-secret facility, one of dozens that make up the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology. Engineers in this office help design the inside cabin of China's spaceships -- dubbed Shenzhou or magic vessel by President Jiang Zemin -- as well as the rocket engines.
While managers are tightlipped about China's space ambitions, the building speaks volumes. Above the door to a cavernous exhibition hall is a picture of a space shuttle with a Chinese flag emblazoned on its tail. It's docked to a space station.
"It's just a picture," explains engineer Chen Xing Quan, the facility's vice director. "Sorry, no photos."
Pictures of Chinese leaders celebrating past space triumphs hang in one corner. Nearby is a full-scale mockup of the Shenzhou ship that will carry the first Chinese astronauts, called yuhangyuans (pronounced YOO-hong-wans). Communist Party luminaries are allowed inside for a quick simulation of the ride to orbit, but not Western journalists.
Today, the simulator is "out of order." It's not possible to take a peek inside either. The key is lost, Chen explains.
No one seems to know anything about a large, meticulously built model of China's Jiuquan launch site -- the spaceport from which humans will blast off -- that sits next to the Shenzhou mockup. The top-secret facility was built 45 years ago in northwestern China's desolate Gobi Desert, miles from the nearest civilization. A model of the blue-hued building where Jiuquan's rockets are erected appears to be virtually a carbon copy of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.
Finally, as the journalists leave, they ask to buy one of the many Shenzhou models and picture books on display at the entrance. They aren't for sale, Chen says. He's not sure why the items all have price tags.
When pressed, he finally concedes the obvious:
"Much of our program is public in China, but some of the parts that aren't so mature we don't like to talk about."
China's obsession with secrecy is nothing new. Neither is Chinese rocket-building, which began here more than 1,000 years ago.
Chinese inventor Wan Hu made the world's first documented, albeit ill-advised, attempt at human spaceflight in the 16th century. Wan strapped 47 rockets to a specially designed chair for his planned voyage skyward. Two kites were attached to keep him airborne.
History records that Wan vanished in a cataclysmic eruption of smoke and fire never to be seen again. He lives on, however, as a folk hero in China. A crater on the moon is named after him. Murals and displays depicting his flight adorn space facilities throughout the country.
China began to develop more sophisticated plans for human spaceflight in the 1960s. A top-secret research center designed to study the effects of space travel on humans was set up in 1968. Seven years later, China demonstrated a technology that is key to returning people from space by successfully launching and recovering a reconnaissance satellite on its first attempt. It took the United States several tries to accomplish the same feat.
The existence of a manned program wasn't publicly acknowledged until a 1978 article appeared in a Chinese technical journal. The state-run media in 1980 published mysterious photos of astronauts wearing spacesuits and training in the cockpit of a spacecraft simulator. Several months later, however, a high-ranking space official suddenly announced the manned program had been suspended for lack of money. All mention of the project vanished.
China had opportunities to hitch a ride to orbit with other space-faring countries in the 1980s. President Reagan offered a place on the shuttle in 1984. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev similarly proposed a trip to the space station Mir. Neither mission materialized.
Sporadic reports continued to surface in the Chinese press of secret shuttle and space-station programs. Finally, in 1992, China officially announced its intention to build a manned program by the turn of the century.
Help came from Russia. In 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese space officials visited Moscow for the first time since their once-close collaboration ended in 1960. The Chinese arrived with a shopping list and bought Russian hardware to guide their own development work: rocket engines, a spacesuit, a life-support unit and a docking system.
The next year, two Chinese began a year of cosmonaut training in Star City, Russia. Analysts speculate they will help prepare China's first class of yuhangyuans. Sino-Russian space ties continue to grow.
"After the reform movement in China and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, relations between China and Russia improved substantially," Luan said. "We now have a mechanism between the China National Space Administration and the Russian Space Agency to meet each other and hold discussions on a variety of subjects."
China took its first major step toward putting people in space on Nov. 19, 1999, when Shenzhou 1 lifted off from Jiuquan atop a 20-story Long March 2F rocket. The unmanned test ship successfully parachuted down in Mongolia 21 hours and 14 orbits later, returning a dummy astronaut and plant specimens safe and sound.
The Shenzhou ship was a slightly larger version of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Shenzhou consists of three main parts: a propulsion-generating module, a descent module in which the crew rides during launch and landing, and an orbital module in which astronauts work and do experiments. Like the Soyuz, Shenzhou has a crew capacity of at least three. Unlike the Soyuz, Shenzhou is equipped with two sets of solar arrays that generate power.
Almost 14 months passed before the second unmanned test flight last January. Shenzhou 2 blasted off with a crew of a monkey, a dog, a rabbit and snails on a six-day, 108-orbit mission. This time, the spacecraft carried out complex experiments and maneuvered to change its orbit and altitude -- a major step forward.
Preparations for a third unmanned Shenzhou mission are continuing in secrecy. It's expected by the end of January. China currently can launch the flights only during autumn and winter.
Unlike the United States, which has tracking and communication ground stations scattered around the world, China has only those within its boundaries and a handful of others in Namibia, Pakistan and on the Pacific island chain of Tarawa. That means China must deploy four Yuanwang (Long View) tracking ships in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans before every Shenzhou launch. Seas are too rough at the ships' southern positions, however, during spring and summer.
The Chinese have made it clear they plan to meticulously test Shenzhou and its modified Long March booster before the first yuhangyuan sets foot onboard.
"We need ample time and plenty of testing to prove reliability before we can really send a man into space," Luan said. "We have to be 100 percent sure that everything is reliable."
There's no shortage of candidates to take the first ride. A Chinese astronaut corps is thought to be training at a new military-run campus northwest of Beijing near a rural area that once was the summer palace for China's emperors. The complex of modern buildings resembles a compact version of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"We select our Chinese astronauts from the air force," Luan said through an official interpreter. "They are mostly fighter pilots about my height, about 1.7 meters [5 feet 7 inches]."
"I do not have the exact number, but roughly, there are about a dozen. Who is going to be the first has not been decided yet. Everybody wants to be the first one to launch."
After several successful manned flights, what next? A five-year plan released by the Chinese government last November offers little in the way of specifics. The truth is the Chinese probably aren't sure themselves.
Any serious operations in orbit require basic skills such as rendezvousing and docking spacecraft, as well as the ability to perform spacewalks. NASA practiced these skills during the Gemini program in the mid-1960s before moving on to bigger things. China almost certainly will attempt to master them as well.
"We are interested in doing rendezvousing. It is our next step," said He Ling Shu, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "The details we don't know. That will be decided by the government. But it's not far away."
Dreams of a shuttlelike space plane are unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future because of the considerable economic and engineering leaps involved. A trip to the moon faces similar obstacles. Nevertheless, the official Xinhua News Agency reported an ambitious time table in October 2000 that would put Chinese astronauts on the moon by 2005. A lunar station would be built by 2010 with completion of a permanent self-sustaining moon base by 2020.
Analysts contend that schedule is little more than wishful thinking.
"No way," said Charles Vick, a China space expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "They don't have the launch vehicles developed to do that. They haven't even done orbital rendezvous and assembly."
A modest space station is the most likely short-term goal.
Chinese astronauts could mate a pair of Shenzhou orbital modules to form a small, makeshift station. Such a station could be a platform for scientific as well as military reconnaissance missions. Cost and technology would not be prohibitive.
There's also another possibility. China has been quietly lobbying for years to participate in the international space station project. The European Space Agency and Russia have warmed to the idea, but the U.S. response has been chilly because of opposition in Congress. However, the project's dire financial straits could change the minds of some lawmakers concerned about Chinese missile proliferation and possible transfer of technology.
"This is a very political issue for the U.S. Congress," Vick said. "Foreign-policy issues remain to be resolved before the Chinese will be allowed to fully join the ISS [international space station] partnership."
Chinese officials say they would welcome the opportunity to learn more about the program.
"Without China participating in the international space station, it is not a true international program," Luan said. "We need to have a better understanding of the ISS -- especially the current status, the future development and the next step -- before we could decide whether to participate. But we are certainly interested."
Show me the money
Ultimately, money -- not technology or politics -- may prove the biggest obstacle in China's way. For now, civilian space funding during the current five-year plan is double the previous plan. Much of the space program's cost -- especially for the manned program -- is picked up by the military. But there are other space priorities that need money, too. They include:
A constellation of Earth-monitoring satellites. A space-based telescope to observe the sun. A joint project with the European Space Agency to launch a pair of satellites to study Earth's magnetic field. Development of new boosters and rocket engines that don't use toxic fuels.
Estimates of annual space spending in China range from $1.5 billion to $3 billion, a huge amount for a developing country. That doesn't include all of the costs related to the country's massive infrastructure buildup. In comparison, estimates of Russia's 2001 space budget range from $100 million to $150 million. NASA's 2002 budget of $14.8 billion dwarfs both.
China's leadership appears fully behind the manned program -- for now. Books, television shows, posters and commemorative stamps have helped drum up genuine excitement among the public, reminiscent of the early days of U.S. space efforts. But China's political winds have inexplicably shifted in the past with little or no warning.
"I think it's a given the first Chinese astronaut will make it into space in the next couple of years," said Kurt Tong, the environment, science and technology counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. "Beyond that, I'm sure there are lots of plans out there. But these plans have been created by the space guys. Long-term plans probably haven't been fleshed out or signed off on by the leadership yet."
Many Western observers have wondered aloud how China expects to recoup its investment in the manned spaceflight program. The answer probably has less to do with actually putting people in space than associated rewards they expect to reap. Chinese leaders hope the effort will lead to general advances in manufacturing, computers and materials science, as well as specific breakthroughs in commercial and military space technologies.
"We are trying our best to transfer space applications to the commercial market," engineer Chen said. "We have lots of overlap between the military and commercial programs."
Other, less intangible, benefits of a Chinese manned program can't be underestimated. Beijing longs to take on more of a global leadership role. And high-profile successes in orbit certainly never hurt the standing of political leaders here on Earth.
"A lot of the manned program comes down to prestige," counselor Tong said. "It gives them a national spirit builder, a little like the [2008 Beijing] Olympics. They don't have opinion polls here, but if they did, there would be a jump for China's leaders on the day the first Chinese astronaut goes into space."
Michael Cabbage can be reached at email@example.com or 321-639-0522. Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel
Space Editor Michael Cabbage spent two weeks in China in mid-September researching this series on the country's growing space program and its likely impact on the United States. During that trip, he became one of the first two Western reporters to interview the head of the China National Space Administration. He also was one of the first U.S. journalists to visit some of China's aerospace facilities in Beijing and Shanghai. Cabbage has covered space since 1994. He joined the Sentinel's staff in 1998.
2nd test flight. (CHINA ACADEMY OF LAUNCH VEHICLE TECHNOLOGY) Dec 8, 2001
After 21 hours, 14 orbits. (PEOPLE'S DAILY) Dec 8, 2001
Chinese space milestones (ORLANDO SENTINEL/ December 8, 2001
China's launch sites. (ANITA J. JONES/ORLANDO SENTINEL) Dec 8, 2001
China steps closer to putting a human in space. (ORLANDO SENTINEL) Dec 8, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel
Holy cow! The Martians built a monument to the dog faced boy? That is sinister!
Check out Michael Cabbage's story in the Orlando Sentinel today!-- CHINA'S NEW FRONTIER China finds launches lucrative--[Excerpt] There also were accusations -- adamantly denied -- that Loral's chairman influenced a Clinton administration licensing decision with a hefty donation to the Democratic National Committee. License approval eventually was shifted from the Commerce Department to the more restrictive State Department.
The Clinton White House announced in November 2000 that it would resume processing export licenses and extend China's launch privileges through 2001 after Beijing agreed to a missile nonproliferation pact. But the Bush administration says outstanding issues remain in implementing the nonproliferation agreement. New satellite export licenses remain on hold. Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and three other lawmakers urged President Bush in July not to resume licensing under any condition. [End Excerpt]
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