Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 05-11-12 23:28
Reaching for the moon
By Xin Dingding
May 11, 2012 - 12:29pm http://www.chinadailyapac.com
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(Cartoon by Li Min/China Daily)
China has made remarkable strides in its space program five centuries after it made the first-ever attempt in the world to put a man in space.
History records that some 500 years ago, a Chinese official called Wan Hu tried to unsuccessfully launch himself on the moon from a wicker chair to which were fastened 47 rockets. Some records state that when the rockets were lit there was a huge explosion and Wan was never heard of again.
After that nothing much happened on the Chinese space front for nearly four centuries. Much of this had to do with the general apathy toward rocket technology, and historical records on the subject were confined to just 25 words.
But in the last 50 years, China has not only successfully sent men into space but also launched lunar probes on its own. Plus on the anvil are plans for a space station, a mission to bring lunar soil samples back to Earth, and by 2020 make available globally the Beidou (compass) satellite navigation, the Chinese version of the US global positioning system.
The rapid pace at which the space program has grown came under scrutiny by the West. Many Western nations have expressed doubts and concerns over the true purpose of China’s space program and often attached ulterior motives to it.
Experts, however, point out that China has no intention of dominating space technologies. Rather, they point out that China is sharpening its technological edge and improving its industries by harnessing space technologies in a peaceful manner for the overall benefit of mankind.
Most of the technologies being used by China are based on those already used by nations like Russia and the United States. While China has no intention of leading the world in space technologies, it does not want to be left behind either.
In the 1950s, global space programs were largely dominated by the quest for supremacy between the former Soviet Union and the US. Most of the activities centered on putting unmanned satellites in space.
China, at that time, was still a newborn country in the throes of transformation and facing economic hardship. The main priority for policymakers was to feed the masses and so space programs took a backseat.
Things changed after eminent rocket scientist Qian Xuesen, or Tsien Hsue-shen, who had helped establish the Jet Propulsion Center in California during the 1940s, returned from the US in the 1950s, to live permanently in China. In 1956, Qian wrote a letter to policymakers emphasizing the necessity for China to develop rockets and missiles along with the need for a strong defense industry.
Supported by the top leadership, efforts to develop missiles and rockets soon started. This laid the foundation for launching satellites, according to the book The 50 Years of China’s Space Industry.
In 1958, watching the satellite launches of the US and the former Soviet Union, the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong expressed the need for China to also launch an artificial Earth satellite.
But that was easier said than done, considering that China did not have the money or scientific talent at that time. In 1959, the satellite initiative was called off.
Scientists, however, were worried that if China completely stopped researching complicated projects such as satellites, it would not be able to catch up with others in the future.
In 1965, Qian submitted a report to the top leadership highlighting the usefulness of satellites in various functions like reconnaissance and communications. Subsequently, the satellite program got the green light.
After five years’ of work, China launched its first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, into space on April 24, 1970.
Qi Faren, designer of the Shenzhou-manned spacecraft who participated in Dongfanghong-1’s development, says after the launch, China became the fifth country in the world to independently develop and launch artificial satellites.
“Western nations were shocked that a developing nation like China could successfully launch a satellite. Even more surprising was the fact that the Chinese satellite weighed far more than the combined weight of the satellites launched by other nations – over 170 kg,” he says.
Since then, China has continued to develop satellites of various types. It was the technology for recoverable satellites that laid the foundation for manned spaceflights.
In 2003, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut in space and China the third nation after the US and Russia to independently carry out manned spaceflights, Qi says.
China had started preliminary work on manned space flights in 1967. Scientists completed sketches and produced miniatures of a spaceship called Shuguang, which means dawn in Chinese. The plan was approved by the government in 1970 and more than 1,000 fighter jet pilots were selected for the space missions.
But due to economic and technical reasons, the former Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense cancelled the spacecraft project in 1975. In the following decade, China’s aerospace industry focused on satellite development instead.
The 50 Years of China’s Space Industry quotes the late leader Deng Xiaoping as saying in 1978 that China would not join the space race. Deng said the country would concentrate on developing application satellites that were urgently needed and had more practical use.
But sometimes a nation cannot follow its own will and instead has to follow the global tide.
In the 1980s, the world experienced a new round of competition in science and technology. The then US president Ronald Reagan in 1983 introduced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a defense project that aimed to use ground and space-based systems for protecting the US from attacks by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles.
The Soviet Union also introduced its own strategic defense plan. European nations established the European Research Coordination Agency to coordinate advanced technology projects being carried out by European companies. Japan, India and Brazil also followed and adopted their own high-tech development plans.
Realizing this trend, four top Chinese scientists wrote a letter to the government in March 1986, suggesting that China should also catch up by developing cutting-edge technologies.
They added that some of the important high technologies needed to be developed over a period of time and could not be purchased. If China missed the trend now, it would be difficult to catch up later, they wrote.
The suggestion received immediate response from the authorities and a green signal was given to a high-tech development project codenamed 863, with manned spaceflight a part of the overall program.
In 1992, the manned spaceflight program was finally approved. It outlined a three-step path to develop a reliable spacecraft to transport humans, master manned spaceflight technologies, and eventually assemble a space station.
The first unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou I was launched in 1999, followed by three more unmanned spaceflights, all of which were successful. In 2003, the country’s first manned spacecraft Shenzhou V put Yang Liwei into orbit, and he stayed in space for 21 hours.
In 2005, two more astronauts went to space on board the Shenzhou VI and stayed in orbit for nearly five days.
China moved to the second phase of its space program with the Shenzhou VII launch in 2008. The mission put three astronauts in space, with one of them carrying out China’s first space walk. Scientists also conducted spacecraft rendezvous and docking technologies in space.
Last September, the unmanned space lab module Tiangong-1 was launched. It docked with the unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft in November. Between June and August this year, China will launch the Shenzhou IX spacecraft with three crew members attempting to manually dock with the Tiangong-1. Some time in 2016, China will launch a space laboratory to conclude the second phase.
China is also planning to assemble a 60 ton space station around 2020 in the third and final step of its manned spaceflight program.
When the manned spaceflight program was mooted in 1992, space scientists also floated a proposal to conduct lunar missions. But with limited economic and technical strength, more attention was given to manned spaceflights, according to China Lunar Exploration Program, a book compiled by the former Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense in 2007.
Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the program and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says China was “pushed” by global trends to start lunar explorations.
The lunar exploration program, Chang’e, named after the Chinese moon goddess, got the government nod in 2004. The program has three stages – circling, landing and returning with soil samples.
China’s first lunar orbiter, Chang’e-1, was launched on Oct 24, 2007, making it the world’s fifth country to launch a lunar orbiter. The second orbiter, Chang’e-2, was launched in 2010 to test key technologies for a soft-landing on the moon by Chang’e-3 next year. Eventually, China hopes to return with lunar soil samples to Earth before 2020.
Unlike China’s manned spaceflight and lunar exploration programs, which were pushed by global trends, the country’s entry into the commercial launch market industry was a self-made choice.
In the early 1980s, the huge profits of operating communications satellites attracted many countries to invest in them. There were a large number of communications satellites waiting to be launched.
China Great Wall Industry Corp, established in 1980 by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, decided to scout for opportunities in the commercial launch market.
On April 7, 1990, the Long March 3 launch vehicle blasted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, sending AsiaSat-1, a communications satellite produced by US satellite maker Hughes Aircraft, into orbit. It marked China’s first commercial launch.
The first eight commercial launches by China’s rocket carriers were successful. But in 1996, the newly- developed Long March 2B launch vehicle, carrying the communications satellite IntelSat 708, crashed and exploded. This was followed by another failure in the same year. The consecutive failures dampened customer confidence and five contracts were cancelled, while ongoing negotiations for several other launches were dropped.
After efforts were made to improve the launch vehicle’s reliability, the Long March 2B rocket carrier restored its service the next year and sent a communications satellite made by the US for the Philippines into orbit.
China launched a few more commercial satellites until the US in 1999 banned the export of satellites to China containing components covered under the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations. Due to the trade barrier, China was denied further opportunities, as US companies still made most of the commercial satellites.
Because of this, China did not conduct any commercial launches between July 1999 and March 2005, says Yin Liming, China Great Wall Industry Corp’s president. But after a few years, the company found new ways to bypass the US trade barriers.
Since 2005, China has begun to cooperate with European satellite makers. It has launched satellites manufactured without components controlled by the US regulations, enabling it to re-enter the commercial launch market.
The company also tried to sell domestically-developed commercial satellites. With China’s space activities picking up pace — a space station by 2020 and Beidou providing global service around 2020 — Yin believes there is a bigger market waiting to be explored.