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Ten Years of Chinese Astronauts
by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Oct 11, 2013

China's achievements in human spaceflight complement a broad range of other space activities, ranging from sending robot probes to the Moon to setting up a constellation of Chinese navigation satellites. With less publicity, China has also made progress in antisatellite weapons.

On October 15, 2003, Chinese Air Force pilot Yang Liwei became the first Chinese citizen to fly in space. His mission on the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft lasted roughly one day and featured live television from orbit.

The flight of Yang Liwei was another important event in the history of spaceflight. It also had a profound impact in other areas of life on Earth. As we pass the decade mark for Yang's mission, it's worth exploring how China's astronaut program has affected us.

For space boffins, this was a long-overdue addition to the elite club of nations with the ability to launch their own astronauts. The Soviet Union and the United States of America had both entered the club within a year of each other.

Decades would pass without any new members joining this club, despite the dozens of guest astronauts who flew aboard American and Soviet or Russian spacecraft. The debut of China's astronaut program was a refreshing development at a critical time.

America was recovering from the tragedy of losing the Space Shuttle Columbia and its crew. Spaceflight was under scrutiny. The safe return of Yang Liwei was a good omen.

Inside China, the Shenzhou program was another yardstick for measuring China's rapid development as a modern, technologically advanced nation. National pride was stirred with justification. Outside of China, it gave the general public more notice of China's steady rise, and also probably raised eyebrows in some thinktank circles.

The paranoia of "Spuntik Shock" did not appear, but it is clear that some people did over-react to this mission. In the general scheme of things, it must be admitted that Yang's mission was just another news headline in a media-saturated world. Most people are indifferent to spaceflight, and did not seem to ponder the news for too long. Curiously, it seems that many Chinese are themselves somewhat disinterested in their own nation's steadily growing achievements in space.

China has made steady progress since then, developing the experimental Shenzhou spacecraft into a fully operational vehicle. China has conducted a spacewalk and sent two teams of astronauts to live aboard the Tiangong 1 space laboratory. Despite its official title, Tiangong 1 is actually a small space station.

China's achievements in human spaceflight complement a broad range of other space activities, ranging from sending robot probes to the Moon to setting up a constellation of Chinese navigation satellites. With less publicity, China has also made progress in antisatellite weapons.

A review of the past decade cannot ignore one nagging issue with China's astronaut program. Missions are few and far between. Just five crewed space missions have been launched by China over the past decade.

This analyst had hoped that China would quicken the pace of its launches after a few years, but this seems unlikely to happen even in the decade ahead. China is regulating the pace of its missions due to budgetary issues and central planning. The heady days of rapid launches during the "space race" of the 1960s are behind us.

China is setting its own pace in space, and while it is moving steadily, its mission planning does not seem designed to trump other major space powers. Given the fact that the world's other two major space powers completed their own first steps several decades ago, there's really no point in rushing.

This leads to the inevitable question posed by journalists and other observers. How does the Chinese space program compare to those of America, Russia and other nations?

In some ways, it's a naive question. Trying to give simple scores or ratings for each program is an insult to the complexities of the programs and their differing goals. This analyst believes that China has a highly advanced space program that is steadily gaining in capabilities, but China is still not in the same overall league as the world's two original human spaceflight powers. That rough score will probably change in the decade ahead as China makes more progress.

China will land a small rover on the Moon later this year and expects to send probes to Mars in the years ahead. There will also be at least one new Tiangong space laboratory, and around 2020, China will complete its major near-term goal: The construction of the Chinese Space Station.

This modular base in space will be much smaller than the International Space Station, but it will represent a large, well-equipped platform for China. Astronauts from other nations will probably visit the Chinese station, making it a sort of second international space station. But don't expect any Americans to go there.

The frosty relations between China and the USA, especially in a matters relating to spaceflight, cannot go unmentioned in this article. Again, this is a highly complex matter involving politics, economics, strategic issues, international relations and some occasionally strange agendas. Exactly how or if this will all be untangled in the future is unclear.

So, let us all remember and celebrate this event. Spaceflight is an inspiration and a vital element of our society. Milestones like the flight of Yang Liwei serve to remind us all of this.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for since 1999. Email Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.


Related Links
China National Space Administration
Center for Space Science and Applied Research
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from

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