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 60.

    Congratulations to the Chinese engineers and astronauts!

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Now China have the USA money from manufacturing most of their consumer goods, they will now develop a space programme that the USA cannot afford. Give it 5 years and China will be light years ahead of USA.

    It's just a shame that space exploration is not shared equally by every nation, without military intentions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Congrats to Chine. A grand acheivment. I am really looking forward to their proposed Lunar mission now the Americans have given up on that one.

  • Comment number 57.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Re: 15. Graphis comment "Our kids will be learning Chinese at school within 20 years".

    And what's wrong with our kids learning Chinese? The fact our kids aren't learning the language spoken by the 6th fastest-growing economy in the world (CIA world factbook 2011), and the country with the most people is an absolute joke since the whole point of education is to prepare kids for the future. Grow up

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    This can only be a good thing. Competition between the Americans and Russians in the sixties was the resulted in human space flight starting and the eventual manned missions to the moon. Maybe a new space race between the Americans and Chinese is what is required for humans to set foot on Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    There is a negativity in this article: e.g. "Yes, China is merely repeating the achievements of American & Soviet astronauts made way back in the 1960s and 1970s..." Even some of the comments seem more like put-downs than anything else: But I feel no sense of negativity: I say "Congratulations, China, especially to Astronaut Liu Yang" on your accomplishment & your openness.
    Well done!

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    If creativity, innovation, and learning is the result, then I'm all for a space race. My fear is this will end up being about colonisation, ownership, and power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Two obvious points made in the information about the astronaut on the right of this article:

    "Only child" and "Member of the Communist Party"

    No surprises there then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Go see the Turing exhibition at the Science Museum in London. Then weep!

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    With the seed funding of private space companies and the plethora of new ventures including SpaceX, Bigelow, Virgin Galactic, Boeing, XCOR, Reaction Engines etc., the big hifts in LEO will be through commercial ops. NASA and the other big Western agencies will continue laying the infrastructure and exloration of deep space. Private venture will beat China to Mars within the next 20 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    When the Americans were going to the Moon somebody wrote a spoof about some Spaniard debating whether Columbus should really be going to the Americas. Perhaps he had a point; nobody going anywhere, or learning about anything new. Anyway, good luck to China and the Americans will be the people who never bothered with it- as we did not either

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    42.unni menon
    19 Minutes ago
    There are lot of problems in the earth now. Why do not we solve this first and then try looking out for space....
    The Earth is doomed. In time overpopulation & exhausted resources will cause war, starvation & disease. Survivors will face an increasingly primitive way of life. Let's hope we can colonise space before we lose the ability to do so..

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Everything China does is 'rapid'.
    Rapid Infrastructure development, Rapid Space Exploration, Rapid Population Growth( forced abortions notwithstanding), Rapid Industrial Growth, Rapid- Everything.
    Why the rush?
    Who are they trying to impress/intimidate?
    I admit the naivete of my comment, but, seriously though, any country, should worry more about Poverty and Hunger.
    Let Europe worry about Space.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    As an American woman, I am very pleased for China and proud of their impressive achievement. I do not think it is necessary for everyone to have their own space programme -- Russia, for example, still lacks basic plumbing in many villages, as I discovered from the curious case of the Buranovo Grannies -- but if you have the brains & wherewithal to spare (to spare!), then well done indeed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Hope it's all for peaceful purposes ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    There will always be problems on Earth, it's human nature. Saying we should sort them out before going to space is the same as saying "let's never go."

    Besides, without resources from space our economies will begin to collapse - maybe within 50 years, as even the UN admits. So we MUST learn to harvest space, which is what China is doing. Good for them. I hope it spurs the US back into action.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    42.unni menon
    11 Minutes ago
    There are lot of problems in the earth now. Why do not we solve this first and then try looking out for space....


    1430AD. "There are a lot of problems in Europe now. Why do not we solve this first and then try looking out for new worlds."

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    There are lot of problems in the earth now. Why do not we solve this first and then try looking out for space....

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Another on for the conspiracy loons to worry about...

    Pick over the footage ad nausium to "discover" clues....

    And conclude it was staged.

    I say, well done China! Your catching up with the UK fast....we went to Mars, with Beagle. It went very well.


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