As a critical phase in what will be an eventual manned Chinese space station, China launched its first space laboratory module, Tiangong-1 ("Heavenly Palace" in English), on Sept. 29.
"China," reports managing editor of space.com Tariq Malik, "has been taking a stepping stone approach to human spaceflight that began with the 2003 launch of China's first astronaut. In 2005, China launched its second human spaceflight, a two-person mission. A three-person flight followed in 2008, a mission that included China's first spacewalk. The Tiangong 1 mission marks China's first attempt to dock two spacecraft together, a vital skill that is needed to build a large space station in orbit."
With the launch of Tiangong-1, the Chinese space program schedule is starting to further accelerate. Tiangong-1's launch will be followed by a Chinese unmanned spacecraft mission, Shenzhou-8, scheduled for launch in November, which will fly to Tiangong-1 and dock with it as part of China's plan to mold Tiangong-1 into a manned space laboratory. Two more manned flights-Shenzhou-9 and 10-to Tiangong-1 will follow in 2012.
"The true significance of Tiangong-1," Michael Sheehan of Swansea University told BBC News, "is that it is a statement of China's intent to achieve superpower status. Chinese acquisition of new technologies such as aircraft carriers, high-speed trains and anti-satellite systems is not just for any intrinsic value they possess, but because the Chinese leadership sees them as symbols that distinguish great powers from their competitors. In this regard, what is significant about the manned space program is that only superpowers have achieved this capability, and Tiangong-1 and its successors are for China, symbolic proof that China is emerging as a 21st Century superpower."
Strategically, China is the only country at present building a space station by itself-the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe are collaborating on the international space station. And all China National Space Administration's space activities are directed by the Central Military Commission in Beijing. As such, Chinese space programs always have dual use missions. "The most recent Chinese Shijian-12 satellite rendezvous ultimately serves military goals, and the Tiangong platform will also serve military missions," says Richard Fisher of International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington, "there is a good chance that the orbital modules for Shenzhou 8 will carry a military payload to compliment the Tiangong payloads."
China has also become a leader in the development and manufacturing of satellites. China now has a variety of highly reliable Long March launchers and three operational launch sites and is launching satellites more frequently than any other country. Since 2006, China has launched 11 remote-sensing satellites and is rapidly completing its Beidou-2 satellite system to provide high-accuracy positioning services for users in China. A complete Beidou-2 constellation will include 35 satellites with five in geostationary orbit.
With the successful launch of Tiangong-1, China is stepping up its presence in space. What is the implication of the development of Chinese space programs for the United States? Is a space race on with China?
China's space programs, though impressive, still lag behind the United States. As BBC News reports, "the U.S. launched its first astronaut in 1961 and its first space station in 1973, and, at just over eight tons, Tiangong-1 is smaller than the American Skylab station launched in 1973. If the United States and China are in a space race, at present it is a very lop-sided one, with the United States way out in front."
"But to focus on the 40-year gap," noted Professor Sheehan, "is to ignore what lies behind China's space program: the Chinese government's determination to achieve a series of dramatic space objectives." And there is one thing that China National Space Administration has that NASA does not have: money. In the last decade, Beijing has invested more than $5.5 billion in its manned space program.
On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched its first orbiter, Sputnik. It changed history. To respond to the Sputnik moment and to regain America's leadership role, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy put Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 20, 1969. And as President Kennedy stated in 1961, "While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last."
China's recent success in space serves as a wake-up call for the United States: to hold back on America's space endeavor is not an option and this vital work must continue.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.