Reawakening the dragon: China's space program might herald a new era of innovation

By Anthony James, staff writer

With the U.S. shuttle program gone, space enthusiasts might be looking to China for their interplanetary travel fix. Though still small in comparison to the U.S. or Russian programs, it is most surprising how China has not only made vast milestones in its space program in only a few short years when it had taken the U.S. and Russia more than 20.

And, it had done so with little- to-no support from non-Chinese space programs. Moreover, China’s program shows no sign of plateauing; lunar missions and sending its Taikonauts to Mars are very much on the agenda. 

Back in June 2013, with the touchdown of its fifth manned spaceflight in Inner Mongolia, China’s space program completed its longest spaceflight ever. Docking with its space lab Tiagong 1, the three-man crew spent 15 days preparing China’s next step in space travel: completing a fully functional space station by 2020. Coincidently, 2020 is the same year that the International Space Station will run out of funding; which could mean that China might be one of the only countries that will have an active manned program in orbit. Given the long, arduous history of the China National Space Administration, the entitlement, if given, is a bit of a surprise. 

The formal beginnings of China’s space program occurred under the Sino-Soviet friendship period immediately following the spark of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race. With the launch of U.S.S.R.’s first artificial satellite Sputnik I in October 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered his congress to add the goal of satellite launches with their ballistic rocket program, which was already underway. Over the following decades, progress toward a manned program was either halted completely or moved at a snail’s pace because of internal political turmoil and lack of cooperation from the Soviets. 

In the wake of de facto restoration of capitalism in China’s economy in the ‘90s, the satellite program was jump-started, but soon found its reputation tarnished with disasters. In 1995, a failed launch of a telecom satellite killed six and injured 23 from falling debris; the very next year another satellite exploded 22 seconds into the launch, falling onto a nearby village. This time the death toll was in the hundreds. At the same time the satellite program was struggling, an ambitious manned space program emerged from a failed project from the ‘80s. Project 921 was born in 1993, declaring that before the new millennium China will have its first manned spaceflight. 

But by 1999, 921 was renamed Project Shenzhou and well underway with a series of unmanned spaceflights. While missing their initial deadline by three years, China sent its first Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space in October 2003. Since then, the Shenzhou program has sent 11 more astronauts into orbit. Shenzhou 7, which launched in 2008, marked the first Chinese spacewalk. China’s first woman in space, Liu Yang, travelled with the Shenzhou 9, whose crew was the first to dock with the Tiagong 1. 

The final phase of China’s space station is not the only plan for its space program. In 2004, the People’s Republic of China announced it would be working toward unmanned lunar missions to collect samples with the goal of putting a man on the moon by 2025. Sun Laiyan, head of the CNSA, announced in July 2006 that it was making preparations for Mars exploration missions with the hope of launching around 2040 or earlier. 

The effectiveness and independence that the CNSA has shown during the last few years mark a political and cultural statement for China. Joining only a handful of countries with their own space programs, China is proving itself to, again, be a world leader in scientific and technological advancements. For politics, the space program will give China influence as a major collaborator and possibly be a military/intelligence superpower. Superiority with rocket technology that comes with satellite and spacecraft will also demonstrate China’s capabilities with missile flight and payload extraction, both important for science and military use.

As the nation that brought along the invention of gunpowder and later, the early versions of manmade rocket propulsion, the PRC might find itself again at the forefront of technology and science with the space travel program. What separates a nation from being a leader rather than a follower of innovation comes from its ability to not only demonstrate great technological feats, but also invent new ones. For China’s future, the centuries of inventive stagnation after the 1700s might just become a small whisper in its long historical narrative.



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