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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 October, 2003, 01:37 GMT 02:37 UK
China's new space order
By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter

Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepherd - and now Yang Liwei. China has become the third nation to put a person into space, and the first Chinese astronaut, or yuhangyuan, will be the new name on everyone's lips.

The Soyuz-type Shenzhou space craft
The Soyuz-type Shenzhou space craft used by China
Coming more than 40 years after Gagarin's historic orbit of the Earth, it is not in itself a major technological triumph.

But it does spell out to the world that China has the know-how and financial clout to put a crew into space.

"It establishes that China has come of age as a technological and economic player," says Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University, Washington DC. "That you're a player on the world scene in the modern 21st Century economy."

Cold War shadow

The Chinese Government revealed few details of its first manned space flight, prior to Wednesday's launch. But the launch of Shenzhou 5 symbolises China's entry to the elite club of space-faring nations at a time when the US is agonising over manned space flight.

If the Chinese land on the Moon, that would be a different equation
Prof Howard McCurdy
According to Douglas Millard, curator of space technology at London's Science Museum, the "ripples" of the Cold War are still passing through us, leaving the old space powers - the US and Russia - in a state of flux.

"We're still riding on the coat tails of the Cold War," he says. "A lot of the old rule books have been thrown away."

There is no doubt that the US is still the heavyweight by far, holding the purse-strings for about 80% of the world space budget and largely financing the International Space Station.

But the glory days of Russia's space programme are long over and other nations are starting to stretch their wings in the high ground of space.

Europe has its own launcher, the Ariane 5 rocket, and a fleet of planetary probes, but has not committed itself to manned missions.

Japan is investing in unmanned space craft and India is trying to harness nationalistic pride with talk of sending a probe to the Moon.

So where does this leave the US, as a new order emerges? According to Phil Deans, director of the Contemporary China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, "some figures in the Bush administration are frightened to the point of paranoia" by this demonstration of Chinese power.

"The Americans are very, very concerned," he says. "Since the end of the Cold War, they have had almost a complete monopoly on getting themselves into space. Now there's a lot more competition."

East-West links

While the US does not collaborate with China on space missions, other countries such as Brazil and European Union states are forging links.

The European Space Agency has joined forces with China for a space science mission, Double Star, which will study the effects of the Sun on the Earth.

Hermes, Esa
Europe's solo efforts were abandoned with its Hermes shuttle project
China has also struck a deal to invest in Galileo, the European Union's space satellite navigation network.

Dr Andrew Fazakerley, of University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, is one of the British scientists on the Double Star mission.

He believes China is unlikely to stop after one manned mission, unless there is a big political upset.

Big ambitions

There is talk of unmanned and even manned missions to the Moon which, if confirmed, would certainly raise the stakes.

"If the Chinese land on the Moon, that would be a different equation," says Professor McCurdy.

"It's a lot of money to spend to prove you're a big kid on the technology block."

Professor McCurdy says that with the Cold War out of the equation, there is much less significance in China putting people into orbit unless they choose a prize such as the Moon, which would cost a fortune.

But according to Dr Deans, the prestige of even a short flight around the Earth matters to the Chinese.

"Big projects like this are a good way for the Chinese leadership to maintain its legitimacy," he says.

Country profile: China
24 May 03  |  Country profiles


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