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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
China's quest for space parity
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Now that China has placed its own astronaut in orbit what will it do in space?

Poster, AP
There is prestige to be had in space
If the initial manned missions are successful, it may build a small space station of its own.

It is conceivable that within a decade, China's space activities might, in certain fields, surpass those of Russia and the European Space Agency.

And if China takes a serious interest in the Moon, it might unsettle the US and a new "space race" might be in the offing.

Space station soon

China's space officials have talked about the plan for post-Shenzhou missions.

Zhang Qingwei, a leading official of the Chinese space administration, told the People's Daily last January: "[The] orbital cabin [remains in space] to lay a foundation for China's second-step manned-spaceflight project - forming a docking link between a spacecraft and another flight vehicle."

Another space official has said: "After it succeeds in manned spaceflight, China will very soon launch a cosmic experimental capsule capable of catering to astronauts' short stays."

China has been accelerating its construction and use of unmanned satellites for communications, weather, navigation and space research.

Chinese officials also have tentative plans for small remote-controlled rovers on the Moon by 2010.

Technological parity

Some Western media have reported that China wants to land astronauts on the Moon as well, but BBC News Online was told in 2001 that this was not the case.

One reason for China's interest in manned spaceflight is international prestige.

ISS, Nasa
Will China build its own mini-station or join the existing international project?
Like the USSR of the 1960s, China sees a manned space programme as an essential "membership card" for the world's top superpowers.

But there is more to it than that. To justify the cost of the Shenzhou programme - put by some at 19bn yuan, or $2.3bn - China expects its space efforts to be profitable as well as admirable.

It hopes that its international image will be transformed and the reputation of its technology and exports boosted.

Fast mover

It also seeks technological parity with Japan and western nations but that is not its ultimate goal. It wants to surpass them.

A report issued in 2000 by the Information Office of the State Council said that the space industry was "an integral part of the state's comprehensive development strategy".

China has Russia in its sights which it sees as having a space effort in terminal decline. It has a GNP and budget five times larger than Russia's, so it can easily afford to outspend Russia in space activities.

It might be that while surpassing Russia, China also eclipses the European Space Agency, which has never sent astronauts into orbit using its own rockets.

Country profile: China
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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