Can China enter the international space family?

by Jason Rhian on January 10, 2011

China has become only the third nation in the world to have a manned space program. Photo: Chine

It has often been called a ‘100 billion boondoggle’ – yet it is also unquestionably one of the most successful international programs in human history. The International Space Station (ISS) is just now starting to produce some of the valuable science that was the station’s selling point from the beginning. However, this delay can be attributed to the numerous tragedies, economic woes and other issues that have arisen on a global scale through the course of the station’s construction.

The one thing that the world learned early on from the ISS experience is that space is a great forum for diplomacy. One time arch-rivals now work side by side on a daily basis.

With much of the nations of the world talking about stepped-up manned exploration efforts it would seem only natural that the successful model used on the space station be incorporated into the highly-expensive business of manned space exploration. If so, then one crucial player is being given a hard look to see if they should be included – China.

Will we one day see Chinese taikonauts working alongside U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts? Only time will tell. Photo Credit: NASA

“International partnership in space exploration has proven its worth over the last decade. It would be a positive step if the other space-faring nation of the world, China, were to join the assembled space explorers of humankind as we march outward into the solar system,” said former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale who writes a popular blog about space matters.

China is only the third nation (behind Russia and the United States) to have a successful manned space program, having launched its first successful manned space flight in 2003. This first mission only had a single person onboard, and gave the world a new word – ‘taikonaut’ (taikong is the Chinese word for space). The country’s next mission contained two of these taikonauts and took place in 2005. The third and most current manned mission that China has launched was launched in 2008 and held a crew of three.

Yang Liwei became the first of China's Taikonaut when he rocketed into orbit in 2003. Photo Credit: Xinhua

China has steadily, but surely, built and tested capabilities essential for a robust manned space program. Considering that China very ambitious goals for space this would seem a prudent course of action. China has stated publically that they want to launch a space station and send their taikonauts to the moon – neither of which are small feats.

China currently utilizes its Shenzhou spacecraft atop the Long March 2F booster from their Jiuquan facility. However, if China wants to accomplish these goals, they will need a more powerful booster. This has been part of the reason that the U.S. has been hesitant to include China due to concerns about the use of what are known as dual-use technologies (rockets that can launch astronauts can also launch nuclear weapons).

Both China's rocket and spacecraft are derived from Soviet Soyuz designs. Photo Credit: Xinhua/Wang Jianmin

Some have raised concerns about the nation’s human rights track record. It should be noted however that Russia had similar issues before being included in the International Space Station program.

“In the early 1990’s, some at NASA thought having Russian cosmonauts on the Space Shuttle would mean giving away trade secrets to the competition,” said Pat Duggins, author of the book Trailblazing Mars. “It turned out Russian crew capsules saved the International Space Station when the Shuttles were grounded after the Columbia accident in 2003. So, never say never on China, I guess.”

Duggins is not the only space expert who feels that China would make a good companion when mankind once again ventures out past low-Earth-orbit.

“One of the findings of the Augustine Commission was that the international framework that came out of the ISS program is one of the most important. It should be used and expanded upon for use in international beyond-LEO human space exploration,” said Dr. Leroy Chiao a veteran of four launches and a member of the second Augustine Commission. “My personal belief is that countries like China, which is only the third nation able to launch astronauts, should be included. My hope is that the politics will align soon, to allow such collaboration, using the experience that the US has gained in working with Russia to bring it about.”

Not everyone is completely convinced that China will be as valuable an asset as the Russians have proven themselves to be however.

“It is an interesting scenario with respect to the Chinese participation in an international effort in space. The U.S. has made some tremendous strides in terms of historical efforts to bridge the gap with the Russians and the results have been superb,” said Robert Springer a two-time space shuttle veteran. “The work that has resulted in the successful completion of the International Space Station is an outstanding testimony to what can be done when political differences are set aside in the interest of International cooperation. So, there is a good model of how to proceed, driven somewhat by economic realities as well as politics. I am not convinced that the economic and political scenario bodes well for similar results with the Chinese. It is a worthwhile goal to pursue, but I am personally not convinced that a similar outcome will be the result, at least not in the current environment.”

China's journey into space has just begun, but it remains to be seen if they will be going it alone or as part of a partnership. Photo Credit: Xinhua

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