The retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet and a number of recent failures in the Russian space program have focused attention on China’s space program.
With three manned flights under its belt, numerous satellite launches and a reliable launch platform in its Long March rockets, China is taking large steps in cementing itself as a space-faring power.
The release of a white paper in 2011 detailed China’s ambitions for space travel, including plans to put space stations in orbit, as well as exploration beyond earth’s orbit that could one day lead to manned missions to the moon.
“They’re one of the only countries on the rise right now,” said Clara Moskowitz, assistant managing editor of science site Space.com.
Moskowitz said she’s impressed with China’s progress in recent years, noting that it’s only the third country to have a manned space mission, alongside Russia and the U.S.
She said that unlike the U.S., which has been forced by the economic climate to reduce its investment in space exploration, China doesn’t have to worry about public opinion.
“China doesn’t really need public will to decide they want to go into space,” she said.
Marc Garneau, a former astronaut and president of the Canadian Space Agency and currently a Liberal MP in Quebec, said that the growth of the space program is politically important for China.
“For most countries, the maturity of their space program is an indication of development to the outside world,” he said.
Dr. Roger Launius, senior curator of the space history division at the Smithsonian Institute, agreed that cachet is an important impetus to develop a space program.
“If your objective is prestige, the more other countries think you can do, the greater your prestige,” he said.
That said, Launius questions how much progress the secretive nation has made on space travel, and how much is simply political posturing.
“I’d be curious to see how much money is actually being spent,” he said.
China made waves in 2003 by becoming the third country to launch a manned space flight, sending the spacecraft Shenzhou 5 into orbit on Oct. 15.
They set another milestone in 2008 when taikonaut Zhai Zhigang performed China’s first spacewalk on the outside of the Shenzhou 7 space capsule. The walk was part of China’s third manned mission to space.
China has also begun development on its own space station, launching a prototype module last September. They’ve already conducted a test docking of an unmanned probe with the module, and plan to use what they’ve learned in the eventual construction of a full space station.
Could China’s burgeoning growth in space travel spark renewed interest from the U.S. and other countries? Moskowitz feels it’s possible.
“I hope it shows a little competition is healthy,” she said. “It might show the U.S. what they stand to lose if they lose their pre-eminence in space.”
Launius notes that to some degree, China is already in a space race with several countries in Asia, including Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and India, which are all developing technology that would allow them to launch satellites into space.
When it comes to the potential for a U.S.-China space race, Moskowitz wonders if the spirit of cooperation might be a better route.
“I don’t know that it needs to be such a cold war mindset of us versus them,” she said. “We don’t need to see every gain they make as a loss for us.”
It’s an opinion Garneau shares, adding that the political climate has changed drastically from when the Soviet Union and U.S. first set their sights on the stars.
“Who would have thought when Sputnik was launched that the U.S. and Russia would be working together on the International Space Station,” he said.
He added that given the complexities of a space program, it makes sense for the U.S. and other countries to approach China’s development in a collaborative mood.
“The costs are high, the risks are high, and it’s better if we can work together on it,” he said.