China in space: Running fast to catch up

Liu Yang emerges from the return capsule Back on Earth - China's first female astronaut Liu Yang smiles for a nation

The smiles said it all. Jing Haipeng, commander of the Shenzhou-9 crew, was the first to emerge from the return capsule, followed by his flight engineers, Liu Wang and the country's first woman astronaut, Liu Yang. Job well done. But their grin is shared across the whole Chinese nation today.

The cost of human spaceflight is so high that you really only go in for this type of ostentatious expenditure if you think you can carry it off, and the Chinese have done that with aplomb these past few days.

The Shenzhou-9 mission posted a series of firsts. Liu Yang's presence in orbit obviously caught the headlines, but I was thinking more about the engineering milestones: the first manned automatic and manual dockings; the first long-duration spaceflight; and the first crew to live aboard a permanently orbiting module, Tiangong-1.

Don't forget also that Jing Haipeng became the first astronaut veteran - this was his second trip into space.

Yes, China is merely repeating the achievements of American and Soviet astronauts made way back in the 1960s and 1970s, but that heritage and the sophistication of modern technology means the Asian nation is on an accelerated development track.

Beijing has long talked about its three-step strategy.

Docking China has learnt its engineering from the Russians

The first step was the development of the Shenzhou capsule system itself - the means to get its astronauts into space. Eight nationals have now taken that journey since 2003.

The second step - which is where we are today - involves the technologies needed for spacewalking and docking. All that leads to the third step - China's own space station.

At about 60 tonnes in mass, this future platform would be a sixth of the mass of the international station operated by the US, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, but its mere presence in the sky would be a remarkable achievement.

China still has much to do before it can get itself into that position, however. It needs a bigger rocket for one thing.

The Long March 2F which launches the Shenzhou and Tiangong vessels does not have the capacity to loft the type of modules China would want to incorporate into its station.

The Long March 5 now in development and due to debut in 2014 will significantly boost lifting capacity to low-Earth orbit.

China TV Chinese TV has carried extended live coverage of the Shenzhou-9 mission

It is designed to carry up to 25 tonnes just a few hundred km above the Earth, more than adequate to loft the 20-22-tonne core module envisioned for the prospective space station.

And then there is the steep learning curve associated with understanding just how you live and work in space for long periods. I am talking here about the unglamorous stuff - managing and recycling resources like water and air, and staying fit and healthy in what is a very testing environment. The ISS partners now have a deep knowledge base on these topics.

There has been a lot of talk about China becoming involved in the ISS project itself, and the fact that it has adopted many Russian engineering standards would certainly make it technically possible for Shenzhou vehicles to visit the orbiting complex.

Europe, too, has argued that additional partners could help spread the cost of running what is an extremely expensive endeavour. But political differences between China and the US would appear to make such involvement unlikely in the near-term.

Astronaut Liu Yang

Liu Yang
  • Born in Henan province and an only child
  • Married, with no children
  • Air force pilot with rank of major
  • Member of Communist Party
  • Honoured as a "model" pilot in March 2010
  • Landed a plane safely after it was struck by 18 pigeons
  • Goes by "little flying knight" on the QQ instant messaging service
  • Has been described as having a penchant for patriotic speeches

China also has something to prove to itself and the rest of the world, so it is in no hurry to join that particular club. But do expect closer ties to develop.

Do expect Chinese astronauts to turn up at European astronaut training facilities, and vice-versa. And do expect China to fly more and more European experiments on Shenzhou and Tiangong missions.

The German space agency (DLR), one of the "big two" in European space, is already pushing forward on a programme of scientific co-operation.

The aspect of all this that still makes me sit up slightly is the increasing openness now shown by the Chinese.

For example, I watched extended live coverage of the Shenzhou-9 mission in my living room in the UK via the English-speaking version of CCTV, the state broadcaster.

On launch day, the live studio programme went on for about five hours, with studio guests and reporters on the scene at the Jiuquan spaceport on the edge of the Gobi desert.

It was just as if I was watching the rolling news output of the BBC or CNN. Remember that just a few years ago, China would only announce something it had done in space after the event. It is one more sign of extreme confidence, of course.

But a word of caution. Spaceflight, to quote the old cliche, is hard, and at some point the Chinese programme will encounter problems.

The history of spaceflight tells us unfortunately that some adversity is inevitable. It will be interesting then to see how the Beijing authorities react.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    There efforts would mean little if only the UK Government supported Skylon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @7: "I wonder if the (still) poverty stricken masses in rural China appreciate their government spending money on this nonsense?"

    I wonder how the poor people in Britain felt about billions being used to bail out banks, or millions being spent celebrating 60 years rule of an unelected head of state?

    Before we start asking such questions of foreigners, perhaps we should at least ask them at home?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The Russians refused to work with the Chinese on the atomic bomb, so the Chinese built their own atomic and hydrogen bombs. The US refused to accept the Chinese to join the International Space Lab program, so the Chinese built their own space lab and space program. They needed money do all these things. So they developed their economy to become a world power. They just believe in themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The pilots biography here wa unsurpsingly predictable with "Has been described as having a penchant for patriotic speeches". That sounds so much like Chinese marketing. But really, space tech is stagnated for the min, why bother? Shouldn't China be looking to expand on what Russia and the US did instead of just replicate and create no competition?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Good. Competition is what put man on the moon in the 60s. Hopefully it can spur us on again.

    This is one area where it WILL have to be "Europe", though. The scope of the challenges of space exploration are too vast for individual nation-states of European scale, at least for the foreseeable future. ESA needs more resources and vision if we aren't to be left behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Now they've ditched Communism in everything but name, there'll be no stopping China. If they hadn't had Communism holding them back and stagnating them for the last 60 years, who knows where they'd be by now? Probably way ahead of Europe and the US... Our kids will be learning Chinese at school within 20 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Why bother with space?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Rockets can only get us so far,we need something new but still rockets are fine for getting us to the moon and we should of had a international moon base easily by now,no excuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    These are step China needs to take to innovate, space programs advance science, so for me it'll be interesting to see what advances China comes up with. So far they peaked at Whiskey in my opinion :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    "At some point the Chinese will have to contribute creatively with innovation and new ideas"

    Yeah, apart from inventing the magnetic compass, paper, the seed drill, ploughs, ships rudder, printing, porcelain and gun powder & fireworks..... What have the Chinese ever done for US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    3 hizento - NASA has the same problem as many of the gigantic failing private companies in America - an unsustainable mass of bureaucrats at the top that do nothing useful but bleed funds away from the core of the company. General Motors is a prime example of that.
    NASA was designed to be decentralised and therefore inefficient, but that only works when the economy is going well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    If you have an interest in space exploration, you should rejoice in this news. Forty plus years after the moon landing and the best we can do is the ISS. Ok, it has it's uses, but in order to push the envelope again, there needs to be some serious competition..... And the Chinese are very serious. The challenge has been issued, let's see the US, Russia and ESA pick up the gauntlet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Well done ! You have to hand it to China. There is no doubt that India and China are going to be the great powers over the next few centuries. I am afraid Europe is heading for the exit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I wonder if the (still) poverty stricken masses in rural China appreciate their government spending money on this nonsense? India next I suppose, which will be an even bigger outrage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    #5 remember that historically it was the other way round. China invented gunpowder and paper for starters and was sending fleets of 60+ ships to Africa and beyond while we were barely out of the Bristol channel. Sadly I'm not convinced the west is doing anything that original anymore either. In many areas we're regressing (withdrawing concorde is a good example)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Why is it that the Chinese can't do anything original? With the exception of the US form of government, they copy everything without an original contribution. Look at all the images coming out of China and replace the faces with English looking folks, and you have pictures from 20, 30, 40 years ago. At some point the Chinese will have to contribute creatively with innovation and new ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I would love to see more international cooperation in future. Space exploration is a benefit for all mankind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It is very interesting to know right now and at least in the next 5 years the USA with countless billions wasted by NASA cannot send anyone into space something the Chinese are able to do right now at a small fraction of the cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    International cooperation in space can only be a good thing. Building bridges through such openness and shared scientific endeavours should be supported and encouraged by all nations, far more can be achieved this way too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Liu Wang the women taikonaut was merely a passenger with limited training but was used as a dry run for civilians to travel to space rather than pilots. In the near future China will be sending scientists and even space tourists with minimal training for space travel.


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