China’s deep-space ambitions

Coming from far behind the US space programme, Beijing is making significant steps towards catching up with its rivals.

Watching the state broadcast of China’s latest manned mission, you’re struck by how outdated the technology looks from the rocket, to the space suits, even to the official sendoff.

The person beside me remarked that we could be watching an American space launch from the 1970s.

Indeed, to other nations like the US, China’s most ambitious mission could be considered somewhat “old” in what it is trying to accomplish.

Manually bringing a spaceship into dock with an orbiting lab is a skill that both the US and Russia mastered decades ago.

The fact that onboard is China’s first female taikonaut, is also not that noteworthy, considering there have already been 55 other women sent into orbit by other nations, including India, South Korea and Japan. 

But it is the steady progress that China has shown in developing its own nascent space programme that scientists say is commendable.

It was just nine years ago that it sent its first person into space. And yet, there are a slew of milestones expected over the next few years.

The world’s most populous nation is looking to send deep-space probes to the sun, the moon and other planets.

And by 2020, it plans to set up its own space station, right at the time that the International Space Station (ISS) programme is scheduled to end.

‘Technological theft’

Chinese officials have long expressed their desire to work together with other nations in exploring the heavens. But they have been kept from participating in the ISS, reportedly due to US concerns over technological theft.

It is a valid concern, according to intelligence experts, who cite China as having one of the most elaborate spy networks aimed at acquiring key technologies.

In April, US Republican Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, accused China of stealing blueprints of America’s new joint strike fighter planes, the F-35 and F-22.

“Make no mistake, America is under attack by digital bombs,” he said. “There are several things the American public should understand about these attacks. They are real, stealth and persistent and can devastate our nation.”

By many estimates, when it comes to space capabilities, the world’s most populous nation lags behind the US and Russia by about 15 years.

But the fact it is spending billions at a time, when others are struggling economically, is of note to many.

Simon Shen, a political analyst, points out that beyond propaganda value, missions to space have very real military applications.

“Even though it claims that it’s all for peaceful purposes,” says Shen, “as long as China has the capability to send these missions to that level, then it has the same capability to transfer that technology for a military purpose when it’s necessary”.

Fervent debate

China is already busy expanding “Beidou,” its own satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS) to make China’s military less dependent on foreign technology.

And it aims to soon introduce a new space freighter to be able to more readily send needed cargo into the outer orbits.

Not all are in favour of this spending, as there has been fervent debate within official circles in Beijing over whether the space programmes are worth the enormous cost.

Some feel the Communist party would do better by devoting more resources to helping pull more of its masses out of poverty.

While exact figures on spending are unknown, insiders say China’s budget for its space programme is modest compared to those of other nations in years past.

That might well speak to the modest nature of the sendoff given to the three latest Taikonauts.

While looking perhaps aged and outdated, one thing space experts do say, is that the rocket, and the space capsule, worked at launch, and this latest mission is showing every indication of succeeding.

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