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by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Nov 12, 2012
The recent change of leadership in China has made foreign policy analysts very busy. Nobody is completely sure of how Xi Jinping will steer China, or how the somewhat opaque machinery of China's political system will respond to him.
While it's not the most pressing issue for China watchers, it's still worthwhile asking one focused question: How will the ascendancy of Mr Xi affect China's ambitious plans in space?
In the short term, we can probably expect no changes at all. The new leader of China has more immediate concerns than spaceflight. Mr Xi and his government will be largely focused on critical matters such as economics, social problems and (hopefully) tackling corruption.
Ignoring the program will not be a problem for the next few years. The near-term future of China's human spaceflight program has been mapped out, and we can see China following a clearly defined path for the next decade. Next year, there will be a second expedition to Tiangong 1, China's first "space laboratory", which is really a small space station. Around 2014, Tiangong 2 will be launched.
Tiangong 3 will eventually follow, with the three space laboratories forming stepping stones toward a larger space station. The first element of this modular space station should be launched around 2020, and will probably happen before Mr Xi is himself replaced by another leader.
China will also pursue an ambitious program of robotic lunar exploration in the years ahead. Its first robot lunar landing will take place next year. Eventually, China hopes to return samples of lunar rocks with a robot spacecraft. Robot missions to Mars, scientific probes and a fleet of utility satellites will also be launched.
Beyond 2020, the future of China's space program is less clear. The most high-profile activity will probably involve operations aboard China's modular space station, which will probably operate for at least five years, and possibly as long as a decade. Plans for other activities are less visible right now.
It seems probable that Mr Xi will have the potential to influence Chinese spaceflight in the 2020s during his term of office, but the plans he instigates will probably remain invisible during his term.
Where does China want to go in space? It is clear by now that China is highly ambitious in spaceflight, and is currently one of only two nations with an active system for launching astronauts. Its bold human spaceflight plan is complemented by an ambitious plan to explore the Moon and Mars. China is also slowly developing a new fleet of rockets. There is clearly the potential for even greater feats in the long term .
As with most nations, China's space program serves multiple goals. It fulfils practical needs such as communications, navigation and Earth observation. It advances science and technology. It is also a highly inspirational symbol of China's strength to both domestic and international observers.
The political angles of Chinese spaceflight, especially its human spaceflight program, are probably more significant now than when the program was instigated. It is widely understood that China's Communist Party is struggling with its image, which has been heavily tainted by rampant corruption
amongst some Party officials and growing inequality in Chinese society. Achievements in spaceflight can inspire pride in the nation and the Party that governs it.
Spaceflight is expensive, but it is probably far easier to advance the space program than implement wide-ranging solutions to corruption and other deeply entrenched social problems.
A robust space program could also appeal to conservative political factions within the Party, and blend with an increasingly nationalist tone in Chinese politics and society.
Will a panicked Communist Party seize on spaceflight as one way to preserve national stability? It is clear that China's achievements in space have been given publicity in the media, but the space program has been relatively soft-pedaled. There is the potential to not only do more in space, but shine a stronger spotlight on the program.
We do not know if Mr Xi or the numerous cadres of China's Communist Party will make major changes to China's steady progress in spaceflight. They could decide to accelerate work on a "shock and awe" project such as landing Chinese astronauts on the Moon.
They could decide to make no changes to the current evolution of the program, which would still result in an impressive sequence of achievements. Or they could feel that the relatively modest investment in China's human spaceflight program should be scaled back.
It's hard for external observers to discern the future of China's space program beyond 2020, but it is probable that the Chinese themselves are still unsure. Some things are certain. Mr Xi will preside over a period of growing strength for spaceflight in China, and will also face the challenge of shaping its long-term future.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmai.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email.
China National Space Administration
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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