China floats towards space dominance

By Asia Times Online 19 June 2012

The successful docking of China's manned Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with the country's Tiangong-1 space lab on Monday heralds a new age. A major shift in the world order is occurring above Earth, with the Chinese space program expanding as the efforts of other nations wind down. By Brendan O'Reilly.

Millions of Chinese watched on live television as Shenzhou-9 blasted off into orbit on Saturday. The Chinese character “fu”, an auspicious symbol for good luck and fortune, adorned the cockpit.

The final launch date wasn’t revealed until the day before the launch, probably due to unpredictable weather conditions. An anonymous government source had said that June 16 was the earliest launch window. [1] This information proved to be correct, and Shenzhou-9 began its ascent on June 16 at 18:37 Beijing time.

The identity of the first Chinese woman to be sent into space was also revealed only at the last minute. Early reports had narrowed the field into a two-woman race between Captain Wang Yaping and Major Liu Yang. The selection of Liu Yang, from Henan province, was announced at a press conference the day before the launch.

The selection criteria for these two women reveal much about Chinese values. Both are military pilots with distinguished records: Major Liu managed to land an aircraft in an emergency situation after it collided with pigeons during takeoff, and Captain Wang flew rescue missions during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

As with all Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, the women were required to have good skin, no body odor, pleasant breath, and no cavities. Most interestingly, both women are mothers. There are rumors that only women who have already had a child were considered, due to Chinese fears of the potentially harmful effects of spaceflight on female fertility. [2]


Shenzhou-9 follows three other manned missions. Shenzhou-5, launched in 2005, was China’s first crewed space flight, followed by Shenzhou-6 in 2005, and Shenzhou-7 in 2008, which saw China’s first spacewalk exercise.

Launched in October 2011, Shenzhou 8 was an unmanned flight. However, it carried out the country’s automatic space docking with the Tiangong 1, China’s first orbital “lab module” (launched one month earlier).

Shenzhou-9 was tasked with performing China’s first manned space docking with Tiangong -1, a complex procedure that officials have confirmed was completed just after 14:00 Beijing time on Monday, June 18.

A successful docking would mean “China’s spacecraft will become a genuine manned shuttle tool between space and Earth. It can send human beings to space stations or space labs”, Zhou Jianping, the main architect of China’s manned space program, told Chinese media before the launch. [3]

This mission was no simple procedure. Extensive calculations and advanced technology were required for the two rapidly moving craft to link up while orbiting the Earth. Even the smallest mistake could’ve led to the mission’s failure and potentially the deaths of all the taikonauts on board.

The Chinese government has invested tremendous resources in its manned space program, spending 35 billion yuan (US$5.4 billion) from 1992 to 2011, according to the China Manned Space Engineering Office. It is one of only three nations that have independently mastered the technology needed for manned space missions, space walking, and orbital docking.

The extensive financial, technological, and political investment in space is in large part directed towards the construction of a permanently manned independent space station by 2020. The International Space Station (ISS) currently orbiting the Earth is a joint project between the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency.

The total cost of the ISS project has been roughly $100 billion [4], and is now facing funding issues as the economies of the various cooperative states face a prolonged crisis. Even with sufficient funding, the space station will not last forever. Optimistic estimates see the ISS as serviceable until the year 2028, but most experts believe the project will have to be scrapped sometime around 2020.

The European Space Agency is open to the possibility of Chinese cooperation on the ISS project, but the United States is not. The US fears that technology transfers to the Chinese space program could have dual-use military applications. The Chinese space program has been aided by Russian and German technology. In exchange, China is allowing Russian and German experiments on Chinese spacecraft.

The Chinese space program is scheduled to establish a permanently manned space station in 2020. Barring major policy changes in the United States, Europe, or Russia, the Chinese may have the only sustained human presence in space within a decade.


There are at least four distinct areas where the Chinese leadership expects benefits from China’s expanding investment in space technology.

First, a presence in Earth’s orbit has important military potential. The People’s Republic of China, as a member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and a signatory of the Outer Space Treaty, is obliged to not place nuclear weapons in space. However, the Outer Space Treaty does not forbid the deployment of conventional weapons in space. In 2007, China carried out a successful anti-satellite missile test. China has a stated intent of avoiding an arms race in space, but if the Chinese government feels sufficiently threatened, the Chinese space program could be used for military purposes.

China, along with Russia, is particularly concerned about ongoing US efforts to deploy anti-ballistic missile capabilities. China posses fewer intercontinental ballistic missile than the other major powers; therefore the US missile-defense system is a threat to China’s strategic nuclear deterrence. A military presence in Low Earth Orbit could be used to deploy countermeasures to the US missile-defense system.

Secondly, scientific research is a key motivation for China’s ongoing space program and the planned Chinese space station. By establishing a permanently manned presence in Low Earth Orbit, Chinese scientists will have constant access to weightless conditions for biological and chemical research. Furthermore, this will provide unmediated access to long-range observation of the distant reaches of the Universe.

Thirdly, the Chinese space program (like so many of China’s current policies) is motivated by economic incentives. The untapped economic potential of outer space is immense, and this potential is receiving increasing attention. Commercial spaceflight has already become a reality. In April of this year, billionaire Google executives and film director James Cameron jointly founded Planetary Resources Inc. Its stated mission is to extract minerals from asteroids and “add trillions of dollars to global GDP.” [5]

A recent study by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found that an investment of $2.6 billion could allow robot spacecraft to “capture” a 500-ton asteroid and move it into lunar orbit. Further expenditures could be needed for mining and the transportation of minerals to the Earth. This project could be carried out with existing technology within about a decade.

Planetary Resources Inc may have the dream, and NASA may have the research, but China has the cash. Some of China’s state-owned enterprises are sitting on tens of billions of dollars, and the Chinese government itself has roughly three trillion dollars in foreign reserves. Furthermore, China’s growing economy is heavily dependent on imported minerals. China may be the only country in the world with the technology, the financial resources, and the political will to make a risky (and potentially highly profitable) investment in a space-mining project.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a space program has major symbolic value. As the United States winds down its manned program and the ISS faces obsolescence, China may be the only country left in the world with a significant human presence in space. Although a distant third behind Russia and the United States in the space race, China’s independent entry is a source of great national pride.

The naming of China’s space assets is a particularly interesting aspect of the symbolism of the project. At the genesis of China’s space program in the days of Mao Zedong, the carrier rockets were named “Long March”, after that central event in Chinese revolutionary mythology. In the contemporary phase of China’s space program, revolutionary labels have been replaced with mystical ones.

The current generation of rockets is called “Shenzhou”, which roughly translates as “divine vessel” and is a homophone for an ancient poetic name for China itself. China’s first moon orbiter, Chang’e-1, was named for a mythical Chinese lunar goddess. Finally, Tianggong-1, China’s currently operational orbiting lab module, means “Heavenly Palace.”

The PLA solicited suggestions from citizens to name China’s planned space station. Wang Wenbao, director of the Manned Space Engineering Office said, “The future space station should carry a resounding and encouraging name… We now feel that the public should be involved in the names and symbols as this major project will enhance national prestige, and strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride.” [6]

The shift from revolutionary names to mystical ones is a deliberate policy to broaden the appeal of China’s space program. The massive push for increasingly impressive space missions is meant in no small part to unite the various social classes, ethnic groups, and political factions in Greater China in pride of their nation’s achievements.

The Chinese government has made significant investments in China’s space program, and fully expects this decision to pay off. Military capabilities, scientific advances, economic benefits, and psychological victories are the potential fruits of a successful space program. China may be the only country in the world with the technological skill, the political will, and the cold hard cash to ensure that its investments in space pay off. DM


  1. Shenzhou-9 set for launch, Global Times, Jun 11, 2012.
  2. China to send its first woman into space, The Guardian, Jun 11, 2012.
  3. Shenzhou-9 set for launch, Global Times, Jun 11, 2012.
  4. Canada renews pledge to International Space Station until 2020, Vancouver Sun, Mar 1, 2012.
  5. A Quixotic Quest to Mine Asteroids, The Wall Street Journal, Apr 23, 2012.
  6. China sets out space-station plan, asks public to name it, The Register, Apr 27, 2011.

Brendan P O’Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

This article is published courtesy of Asia Times Online.

Photo: Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (C), Liu Wang ( R) and Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, salute during a departure ceremony at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province, June 16, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Lee


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