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 40.

    This is a big deal for China. No, not going into space or sending stuff there... but creating a living space (even if it is just a tiny capsule), with smooth docking procedures is a huge technological achievement, especially for one to do it alone. China doesn't really have a competitor - US and Russia have done it all before, and India are too far behind... so their motivation is their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Well done China, glad everyone got there and back safely.

    I wonder if the future will be anything like Futurama...

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Space exploration is important, and has inspired mankind, and resulted in some incredibly useful inventions, but right now, there are a few more urgent priorities. Like devising a new monetary system for the world, dealing with climate change, and introducing our banking, political and financial oligarchs to a slightly older invention, the guillotine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    May be we should start sending them money like we do India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    14. The Ace Face: Why Bother with Space?

    Please tell me you are TRYING to be ironic or funny. Perish the though you are serious. Mankind needs to push onward and explore and colonise space. As Stephen Hawking said the earth is a very fragile basket in which to keep all the eggs of mankind.
    If people like The Ace Face had been around in mans infancy we'd still be in caves - why bother with huts!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    skype is the future

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    "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."

    That is because China's rocket is closer to the Soyuz then the space shuttle. NASA needs reform.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    #32 Not really true. Supersonic overflights are banned almost everywhere (especially the UK and Europe). There's two reasons concorde failed. The most important is that it lacked the range to manage LA-Tokyo (it once nearly ran out of fuel JFK-Heathrow... it flamed out taxing to the terminal) and it never made a profit because of the immense operating costs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    #22 Drunken Hobo
    "Concorde was supposed to be the future of air travel", it was but the Boeing SST failed, so Congress banned supersonic overflights of the USA and killed the Concord project.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    "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."

    China yes, India no. You only have to visit India to understand it is a lost cause with birthrates among the poor at an uncontrolable rate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    24 Little_Old_Me - A bit pessimistic there, we've already developed sci-fi ion-impulse drives and there's that SABRE air-breathing rocket being developed. Antimatter rockets would be a huge development, but there are significant problems with producing and containing antimatter.
    I don't think we'll ever develop a space elevator, but a mass driver on top of a Peruvian mountain is a possiblity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    #27 To get man on the moon required about 10% of US GDP for 15 years. The US only spent that much through fear the Russians would use space tech as a method of nuclear weapons delivery or test super-sized bombs on the dark side of the moon (and other McCarthy-esque paranoia). I'd welcome the tech that comes through another space race but not if the price is cold war with China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    We should invest explore and better ourselves but somehow instead of going forward the only thing we are trying to achieve is keeping ourselves alive after channelling all of our money and funds as society to the superrich conglomerates and the bankers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    This is good new...the last time there was a space race we (humanity) landed on the moon. Hopefully this will trigger the next wave of space exploration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    China may have entered the space race but companies are still going to be the main driving force with people going deeper into space. If you have an asteroid that orbits earth and it's value of detected ore is roughly the same as the total economic output of the planet, that becomes an incentive for mining companies to buy shares in new space companies. Like Vale buying into Reaction Engines.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "So they developed their economy to become a world power. They just believe in themselves." You mean the economy they built out of billions of US dollars? China have huge debts to outside countries that very few know of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    22.Drunken Hobo

    I doubt we'll ever find a new spae travel tech. For the examples we can quote of where the naysayers were proved wrong, there are many other ideas that never did come to pass, such as a perpetual motion machine.

    Besides, to really explore space, whatever realistic travel tech, we'll need cold storage of living humans too.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    "we should of had a international moon base easily by now,no excuses."

    I think massive budget cuts at NASA was the excuse. I'm starting to come around to the idea that the private sector is better suited to space stuff than these big national space race dealies. At least they'll only abandon a project if it's failing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    13 markdoncaster - Problem is we've reached a peak in chemical rocket technology; it's not advanced much since the 60s. Similarly, in 1969, Concorde was supposed to be the future of air travel, but jet engines didn't develop the way we thought they would.
    If we'd stuck with steam power, powered flight would have been a novelty. We need a new technology if we ever hope to colonise the Moon or Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The reason we haven't been into space is at one part the cost of the programme but also it is because we are spending more time researching more efficient ways of performing in space. Rather than flying to the moon to get the same old rocks we have been investing in research dark matter and quantum mechanics, which is fundamental to the research of new space engines (warp drive .etc).


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