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Can China enter the international space family?

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • wjwbudro January 12, 2011, 4:18 PM

    My arrogance? Now that’s funny. I am not oblivious to the quagmire that we have allowed ourselves to fall into. I don’t need pages of rhetoric and links to editorial from you to remind me; I do keep up with current events as time permits. The sole intent of my response to you was to simply say I and others here, could do without the anti-American undertones that you so subtlety slip into your responses. Yes, I am old and have fond memories of an America where pride, and the sense of values that founded this nation meant something. Maybe it has just faded a bit and will rise again but, I fear I won’t be around to see

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb January 12, 2011, 10:19 PM

      I clearly stated my comments were not anti-American, but a realistic appraisal of the position of the US space program and of China. Saying America fears China’s rising economic power is not an understatement; and from the recent statements from your commentators and your elected representatives. America sees it with suspicion and future conflict, China sees it as continued modernisation.
      As an non-American observer I do see both points of view, but if I express contrary to the American position that does not necessarily make me anti-American. In my opinion, this story is particularly skewed, and makes incorrect assumptions of China’s position.
      Holding America with pride is commendable, and that I cannot berate you for having those feelings, but also so does China and other places they feel the same too about their countries. In a forum (and even on a diplomatic level) with so of many different cultures and countries, general clashes are bound to happen.
      In future, will take your concerns expressed here into consideration.

      • Paul Eaton-Jones January 13, 2011, 1:27 AM

        One aspect of Americdan foreign policy that used to worry me a few years ago was the Bush Doctrine one part of which, if I remember, broadly stated that the U.S. reserved the right to intervene in any country that sought to outstrip America militarily whether that country was an ally or ‘enemy’. Now that was scary. However, that aside I DO think America has earned the right to the gratitude of nations for bank-rolling the recovery of the world following WW2, leading innovations in the ‘space race’ and other things too many to mention. Unfortunately every nation/empire has its dark, bulling and plain nasy side and we often tend to pick on that rather than be even-handed.

        • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb January 13, 2011, 2:41 AM

          I have this recurring dream where I am in control,
          It’s a no win situation tearing at my soul

          …about sums it up!

          As for; “I DO think America has earned the right to the gratitude of nations for bank-rolling the recovery of the world following WW2…”
          Well most of them did pay the money back and with interest, you know. I.e. Britain from the end of WWII finishing in 1996 ($4.4bn lent, $7.5bn paid back). (The even aid back those for WWI.) Even Russia did so on 27th March, 2009.
          The truth is America (and a matter of fact that applies to nearly all other countries) might have contributed, but the dark side is they’ve always expected something in return and written into the contract.

          • Paul Eaton-Jones January 13, 2011, 8:16 AM

            I agree. In fact we in Britain only finally paid back our loan 4 four years ago. But had America not stepped in everything would have taken far longer to get back to ‘normality’. Btw, I’m not an apologist for U.S. policy, domestic or foreign. You’re bang on with the comment about something being written into the contract – Japan giving up belief in the divinity of the emperor and adopting western-style democracy; Germany running their reconstruction in line with U.S. say so [a bit of a sweeping generalisation] etc etc.

        • tripleclean January 15, 2011, 6:22 PM

          The Bush Doctrine was great let us sleep well at night after eight years of Bill Clinton’s mistakes. We don’t usally don’t elect our presidents because the rest of the world feels safe with them in our office, I rather like it the other way. The Chicoms abused us during Clinton.

  • wjwbudro January 12, 2011, 4:37 PM

    I have no idea why my previous post was sent before I finished it but I think you get the message. I’ll just add that the other reason for the anti-Chinese sentiment that I included was that this “white devil” as they refer to us, was a victim of their two faced business dealings back in the early era following the “most favored nation” status we bestowed upon them. They do not honor patent protection or intellectual property rights. They are ruthless and cunning without any sense of business ethics whatsoever.

    • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb January 12, 2011, 10:27 PM

      I do not have such dramatic fears — especially with their current developments in their space program. That is my point of view.

      • wjwbudro January 13, 2011, 7:10 AM

        “I do not have such dramatic fears —….”
        Rio Tinto et al is just the tip of the iceberg for Australia and any one else that expects to do business with China.
        Again, they have clearly demonstrated that they will crush anyone that gets in their path to world domination.
        Keep the faith mate.

        • Hon. Salacious B. Crumb January 13, 2011, 8:06 AM

          Good point, which I cannot disagree with.
          Made me mad as hell, too.
          My biggest fear is the influence of the PLA (People’s Liberation army) and especially their General Political Department. (These conscripted folk are in most western countries, and worst, you wouldn’t know about them even if they were sitting next to you. Worst, the PLA is responsible for the Chinese space program. The western collaboration of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) , though China asked to join this group, but was declined membership in 2004 on trust regarding exports of technology. Since then the west has continued to try and associate the connection with the PLA and ICBM missile platforms. In this instance, the distrust goes both ways — something U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was trying to smooth over a day or two ago at Qinqhe near Beijing. merde alors!

  • signofthetimes January 13, 2011, 6:33 PM

    As an aside, the only debt that Britain paid back was a loan made in 1945 for payment on shipments of goods that were already in transit. All other grants made to Britain during WWII were made under the lend-lease act, and was never paid back.

    A total of $50.1 billion (equivalent to $759 billion at 2008 prices) worth of supplies were shipped under lend-lease: $31.4 billion to Britain, $11.3 billion to the Soviet Union, $3.2 billion to France and $1.6 billion to China.

    One quote from the article is particularly agravating to me:

    “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.”

    The people working side-by-side have likely never been rivals. Their governments are rivals, and likely continue to be. It reminds me of Phil Donahue’s telecast to the Soviet Union during the 80’s with the intent to reduce tensions between the US and USSR by showing how alike we are. Quite naive.

  • Redbaron719 January 15, 2011, 1:43 PM

    For me, comparing the practicality and wisdom of including the PRC in the 1st World space-faring collective with the former initiative of including the Russians leaves the case for including the PRC a tad short in two all important scores. It is also much like the comparing of apples to oranges.

    Though they lost the race to the Moon, the USSR/Russian Federation was/is still the founding member of the 1st world space-faring collective. The Russians did win the first two important races–first launch of a satellite into orbit and first orbit and successful return to Earth of a human cosmonaut/astronaut. Had their N-1 heavy lifter not failed due to plumbing problems they couldn’t solve, possibly the USSR might have won the race to the Moon, also.

    Other notable firsts were: the first intercontinental ballistic missile (1957), first animal in space (the dog Laika on Sputnik 2), first Moon impact (1959) and unmanned landing, first space rover, first space station, and first interplanetary probe. It’s also worth noting that at the time the USA began partnering seriously with the USSR, the Russians were hands down the preeminent authorities on long duration manned space missions and space station technology.

    On the political scene, there was glasnost and perestroika, followed by divestiture of the Soviet Empire client states, collapse of the USSR and what in Russia passes for democracy ascendent with the rise of the Russian Federation. START I of 31Jul1991 reduced ICBM and thermonuke counts. More substantive treaties and agreements followed. The Soviet navy went to pot, much of the aggressive military presence was disbanded. Many missiles were re-targeted. Cuba was cut loose to go it alone.

    The PRC, while making great strides, isn’t presently in the same league as the US and the Russian Federation. Viewed across the board, the PRC space program isn’t clearly superior to that of the ESA, or JAXA, either. They have yet to develop a reliable heavy lifter launch vehicle on their own.

    Politically, the PRC is most definitely a totalitarian regime, more ultra-socialistic than communistic, ruled by a small oligarchy. Militarily, China has never ceased to maintain a threatening stature despite massive world trade involvement. The Chinese Central Bank wields the yuan in support of predatory trade practices. Patents and copyrights mean little to nothing, as piracy and violations abound. Repetitive Internet cyber-attacks have been traced back to the Chinese. The oligarchy will do nothing to restrain and/or muzzle the deranged North Korean dictatorship next door. Chinese policies are often discordant or obstreperous in the UN. Premeditated blowing up of its own satellite in orbit to prove a militaristic point created international consternation and space logistics problems…the list goes on with all the items militating against prospects for including China as a reliable space-faring ally. On balance, it is very doubtful of the prevailing space-faring collective will ever include the PRC into the club. Dealing closely with the PRC in space appears to be all downside, and no to low upside.

  • Paul Eaton-Jones January 18, 2011, 4:17 AM

    Sorry mate but the world did not sleep well after Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld decided that it would neat to take down [their words if I remember it] any country that sought to outstrip America in military terms. As a citizen of the UK, allegedly the biggest supporter of the U.S., it was a shock to learn that we were in the same target sights as North Korea et al. [And there are areas where countries are ahead of America in certain aspects.] But that’s what happens when a population elects a dullard as its leader. You get what you deserve. Pity really as it impacts on the rest of the disinterested world.