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Published on Dec 10, 2013 in Asia, China, Featured Articles, News

China’s Space Program

Photo from pri.org

Photo from pri.org

China’s space program was originally organized in the mid-1950s as a part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). At that time the primary purpose of the space program was to develop ballistic missile technology and military applications in space, rather than focusing on exploration and science. However, direct military control over the space program was short-lived as the government wanted their fledging agency to better resemble the space agencies in the West, which seemed to be experiencing a great deal of success.

Progress in China’s space program didn’t come easy. Since China was not a technologically advanced country at the time, it relied on the Soviet Union to provide it with the technicians and hardware necessary for its ballistic missile development program. Soviet assistance lasted until 1960 when there was a Sino-Soviet split, after which time China decided to go it alone. China’s space / missile development program continued to progress and eventually resulted in their placing a satellite in orbit in 1970. But when Mao Zedong died in 1976 the country went through a period of internal strife and interest in space went away. New development in all things technological slowed and several space programs were cancelled. It wasn’t until China opened its doors to the rest of the world in the early 1980s that the country gradually regained its space focus. There was no giant leaps in the space program for the next two decades, just steady non-dramatic progress. However, in 2003 China’s technological sophistication improved to the point that it was able to place an astronaut in orbit and send a lunar orbiter around the moon in 2007, the fifth nation to do so.

Space has long been the domain of both the US and Russia. In the early 1980s, for example, the US was the dominant force in the commercial launch market, performing virtually all commercial launches. But US has since lost ground to both Europe and Russia, performing just two of the 38 commercial launches that took place in 2011. The future for US space missions is increasingly moving into the hands of private industry. Private space flight firm SpaceX, for instance, wants to bring back US dominance in commercial rocket launches and has already signed up 50 future missions. However, SpaceX projects that its stiffest competition will not come from Europe and Russia, but instead from China.

Today, China’s space program is under the auspices of the China National Space Administration (CNSA) and the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), their equivalent of NASA. Since it was established in 1992, the CMSA has organized 11 space flights and sent 10 astronauts into orbit. China was the third country to put a human into space in 2003. Since that time it’s made steady progress on the development of space vehicles and crewed space missions. They’ve also recently completed construction on a new launch complex on Hainan Island, their fourth. If you saw the movie Gravity, then you know that China has a space laboratory orbiting the earth. In 2015 it plans to put a second laboratory into orbit, and in 2018 it will begin construction of an orbital space station which will be completed by 2020. Future missions also call for a lunar landing as well as the exploration of Mars.

Much of China’s rockets and spacecraft have been based on Russia’s Soyuz design. However, China continually has modified this design and incorporated what they’ve learned from NASA and the European Space Agency into a vastly improved version. Over the decades China has also benefitted from the advancement of technology and has learned valuable information as a result of the American, European, and Russian space programs.

China’s emergence as a space power comes at a time when other nations are decreasing their space missions. For example, with the end of the space shuttle program, NASA and other space agencies have had to rely on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the space station, which was scheduled to operate only through 2020 making it unclear whether its life can be extended beyond that point. The US, Europe, and Russia also have no definitive plans for placing a man on the moon or even on mars. China, in contrast, is actively working on three different lunar landers designed to return samples to earth as well as act as a model for future manned missions to the moon. CMSA is also working on a long range plan to place a man on Mars.

 Alan Refkin

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