Space could be Chinese by the year 2050, experts say
BEIJING (AFP) Oct 16, 2003
It is the year 2053. Zhang Jianwei, a Chinese air force colonel, peeps out of the cockpit of his "Ziqiang VIII" space shuttle to catch a last glimpse of the Jiuquan Space Center before blasting off to Mars.

Sitting next to him is Neil Glenn, a US Air Force major who has been invited to visit China's "Red Horizon" base on Mars, as a goodwill gesture to the American losers in the race to send a man to the red planet.

"Shi, jiu, ba ..." goes the Mandarin-language countdown. "...three, two, one -- and lift-off!"

Could this be simply science fiction, at a time when China has just sent a man into orbit around the Earth and merely succeeded in doing what the Americans and Russians accomplished four decades earlier?

Yes, experts say, but it is definitely within the realm of the technically feasible.

"By 2050, you could see a Chinese base on the moon, or even on Mars," said Brian Harvey, the Dublin-based author of a book on China's space program.

"The challenges are much less technical than they are political and having the money and the will to do it," he said.

For China, money has so far not been a problem, since its entire manned space program has cost a relatively trifling 19 billion yuan (2.3 billion dollars), or what the US space shuttle costs every six months.

Political will could also be a resource in ample supply in China, given the immense boost to the country's prestige after the successful flight of the Shenzhou V.

The sky is no longer the limit, when China's space pioneers start dreaming about the possibilities that the universe affords.

"In the 20 years to come, humans will travel in outer space and space tourism will ultimately become an industry," Zhang Qingwei, deputy chief commander of China's manned spaceflight program, told Xinhua news agency.

A space program could suddenly gain speed, once the will is there, not least because much more is known about space and man's prospects of surviving in it than in the 1960s.

"It took just eight years from when the United States planned to send a man to the moon until it happened," said Harvey.

China's immediate objective after Shenzhou V is likely to be an attempted space walk as well as experiments with space rendezvous.

For the medium-term, China is likely to aim for a space station in 2008, and, in close contest with India, an unmanned mission to the Moon the same year.

Beyond that date, conjectures become more hazy, although China's research programs could indicate the rough direction, and nothing indicates it is about to slow down its efforts.

China has unveiled plans for a new generation of rockets named Long March 5, which are intended for use until the middle of the century, and will be able to carry significantly heavier payloads.

Also indicative of China's long-term plans, the Shenzhou capsule should, with minor modifications, be able to send a Chinese astronaut around the Moon and back.

China has made no clear-cut announcements on whether it hopes to place a man on the Moon.

But local scientists have indicated they are interested in the Moon's resources, including Helium-3, which can be used for nuclear fusion.

But the real prize is Mars, and Chinese space exhibitions have had scale models of what a base on the Red Planet might look like.

"The main objective of a Mars base would be to find life," said Harvey. "It may take humans rather than robots to find it."