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USA Today: The ‘why' behind China's own private space race


October 18, 2005 // Page 21A // By James Oberg

The safe return of the second human space mission by Chinese astronauts Monday leaves no doubt that Beijing is committed to this expensive and risky activity. Considering the economic and technological strain it places on China, the natural question to ask is: Why?

Despite Western theorizing about space challenges — a new moon race or even a military conquest of the heavens — the most plausible rationale for the Shenzhou program appears to be what Chinese leaders have always stated. They expect that it will be good for China, the Chinese people and for the ruling regime.

The program's leisurely pace, with the recent mission coming two years after its first human flight, is consistent with the belief that China intends to extract the maximum benefit without a “crash program” to challenge other space powers to some cosmic goal line.

There is no new space race, but China clearly intends to wind up as a winner.

Five years ago, China released a “white paper” on its space goals. The document highlighted space activities as a key element “in the modernization drive of countries all over the world,” and declared that China “has all along regarded the space industry as an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy.” Specific unmanned applications such as satellites have been deployed to provide cost-effective services.

Chinese specialists studied the history of space activities in the USSR, the USA and other space-faring nations and extracted lessons to guide their own strategy.

In June 2000, soon after the first unmanned test flight of a Shenzhou spacecraft, an article in Xiandai Bingqi magazine explained why the cost of human flight was justified: “From a science and technology perspective, the experience of developing and testing a manned spacecraft will be more important to China's space effort than anything that their astronauts can actually accomplish on the new spacecraft,” the article stated. “This is because it will raise levels in areas such as computers, space materials, manufacturing technology, electronic equipment, systems integration and testing.”

Merely raising technological levels is not enough, Chinese experts concluded. The outside world, as well as China, must be persuaded such improvements have occurred. Successful human space missions, as the past half century has shown, do precisely that.

For China, this has measurable commercial, diplomatic and military value. The reputation of Chinese high-tech exports, competing with similar items from around the world, is enhanced by space successes, and this raises the prices customers can be compelled to pay. China's ability to do what it promises in space is an affirmation of its reliability in fulfilling other technology-related promises. The perceived effectiveness of Chinese high-tech weapons — from missiles to jets to submarines — is elevated by these visible successes in related space hardware.

Nor can national pride be sneezed away as a genuine benefit, especially in light of the still-divided domestic economy. National unity and discipline have been themes of China's history for thousands of years. When a central government has “the mandate of heaven” it can maintain order and security. Without widespread public acceptance of its legitimacy and effectiveness, a regime can fall.

What better source for a “mandate of heaven” in the 21st century than the heavens themselves?

A moon probe and small space station by 2010, shared with allied nations, is the stated goal — and it's entirely logical. Shenzhou (which means “heavenly vessel”) will carry astronauts to and from the station, but it will also carry the meaningful message of China's technological status, with all the international ramifications that the recognition of that status signifies.

James Oberg, a retired “rocket scientist,” is a news media consultant and author.


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