Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 12:49 UK

What's driving China space efforts?

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter

Shenzhou 7 atop the Long March 2-F rocket (AP)
China may want to send a message to the world

The launch of Shenzhou-VII by China is another reminder of the country's growing confidence and capability in space.

It delivers a message to the traditional space powers: after a slow start, China is rising fast.

This mission is a critical step in a "three-step" human spaceflight programme aimed at docking spacecraft together to form a small orbiting laboratory and, ultimately, building a large space station.

It has sent a robotic spacecraft, Chang'e, to the Moon and there are plans to land a robotic rover on the lunar surface in 2010.

Last year, China faced international criticism when it used a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy an ageing weather satellite in a weapons test.

But what are the forces driving Beijing's space endeavours?

There is a space race underway, but it is an Asian space race. It is between China, Japan, maybe Korea, certainly India.
Roger Launius, National Air and Space Museum
Economic reasons are first and foremost, explains Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst at think tank CNA in Washington DC.

"From a civilian perspective, you are fostering the development of advanced technologies," he explains.

Another driver is diplomacy, said Mr Cheng. A wide-ranging space programme showed the rest of the world that China had arrived on the international stage.

"That fits with hosting the Olympics, that fits with a burgeoning economy, and that fits with the world's largest foreign capital reserves," he explained.

There is also a domestic motivation: success in space helped legitimise China's regime in the eyes of its population.

"There are problems like melamine in milk. There are issues of corruption. But the party has shown it is able to achieve things that no previous Chinese government has ever done, and that China is among the first-rank powers in advanced technology," Mr Cheng told BBC News.

'Luxury item'

Then there is the military rationale: a nation that could launch multiple satellites on one rocket could put multiple warheads on a single rocket.

Space technology also required the development of precision capabilities which carried over to weapons systems.

Beijing's manned efforts should be considered separately from the rest of its space programme, Mr Cheng said.

Shenzhou 7 atop the Long March 2-F rocket (AP)
Russian technology was the basis for China's spacecraft
"The manned programme is all the things I have mentioned and more. It is a sign of a wealthy country - this is a luxury item. It puts China ahead of every other Asian country - significantly - in terms of space," he explained.

Human spaceflight also served as advertising for the country's commercial launch capability.

If China was sufficiently confident in its own space technology to launch its citizens into space, then it was certainly safe enough to launch another country's satellites.

"It is a prestige programme, no question," said Dr Roger Launius, senior curator in the division of space history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

"I think China has entered the [manned spaceflight] arena for the same reasons that the United States and the Soviet Union did in 1961.

"It is a demonstration of technological virtuosity. It's a method of showing the world they are second to none - which is a very important objective for them."

Steady progress

China's steady, methodical progress in space has certainly highlighted the challenges faced by Nasa as it grapples with the transition to a post-shuttle era.

The space shuttle is due to be retired in two years. But its replacement, Ares-Orion, will not begin flying until 2015. In the interim, the US will be reliant on Russia for launching crew to the International Space Station.

But tensions between the two nations over the Georgia conflict mean that Nasa has faced considerable political pressure to keep the shuttle flying beyond 2010.

And, unlike China, the European Space Agency has not developed a manned space transportation system of its own.

However, suggestions that China has engaged in a new space race with the US or the other traditional space powers are wide of the mark, experts say.

"This is not the 1960s. We are not watching China put up repeated manned shots one after the other. But they are intent on ensuring they don't have any spectacular failures either" said Dean Cheng.

Dr Launius agreed: "There is not the same level of concern or interest registered in the US for a competition with China in space. I don't think they view that as an issue in Europe either."

He added: "There is a space race underway, but it is an Asian space race. It is between China, Japan, maybe Korea, certainly India. They are competing with each other for stature in that context.

"And the Chinese, because of their full service capability - humans, robots and military - are at this point in time probably the leaders in that race. But those other countries have lots of capability too."

Though China may only be the third country to launch a human into orbit, it still has a long way to go if it plans to mirror the achievements of the US and Russia.

"When you look at the programme as an observer from the outside, they've shown success in building spacecraft that can fly humans and do certain things," said Roger Launius.

"You can't build space stations until you can do those kinds of activities. You can't go to the Moon until you can do those kinds of activities. And they're not there yet.

"They're planning an EVA (spacewalk) this time and I hope they are successful. But one EVA does not make a programme."

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