Chinese launch could signal new space race
Nation's first taikonaut blasts off early Wednesday
(CNN) -- Four decades after the Soviet Union -- and then the United States -- first sent men into space, China has matched the feat and, perhaps, launched a new space race.
Chinese state media have reported the launch of the nation's first manned spacecraft. With that, the world's most-populous nation became only the third to send a man into space.
Chinese state television reported that the launch took place at 9 a.m. Wednesday (9 p.m. Tuesday EDT) in the Gobi Desert.
The Chinese program raises questions among Western analysts whether a new space race is dawning.
The first race began October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite. Amid the U.S. public's growing fears, the Soviets launched Sputnik II a month later. Aboard the second satellite was a dog named Laika.
The United States accelerated its young space program and launched its first satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958.
The two nations competed feverishly for decades.
The Soviet Union put the first man into space April 12, 1961, when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth and landed safely. Less than a month later, on May 5, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space.
Joan Johnson-Freese, chairwoman of the department of national security studies at the Naval War College, is among those who wonder whether China's achievement is the beginning of the end of the United States' dominance in space.
"It could be a Sputnik shock all over again, or it could be the Americans begin to question whether, deliberately or not, the U.S. could be beginning to cede its leadership in manned space, which we have of course held for 50 years," Johnson-Freese said.
Some Western observers are convinced that the Chinese flight is much more than a stunt.
Although the Chinese started a manned space program in the 1970s, it fizzled. The program was rekindled in earnest 11 years ago.
China has flown four unmanned test flights. The first taikonaut -- an English word taken from the Chinese "taikong," or "space" -- was carried into space aboard the Shenzhou V, or "Divine Vessel."
If all goes well with the early manned flights, the Chinese plan to launch a satellite to the moon within three years. After that, China plans to launch a space station. The goal is to establish a permanent outpost on the moon within 15 years.
Bob Walker, a space analyst and former congressman, said the Chinese program appears to be well-funded.
"It's a very aggressive program where they're putting lots of resources into it, and they believe it's a part of their national destiny," he said.
In a sense, the Chinese began the space race.
The Chinese invented rockets in the 13th century, and used the so called "fire arrows" to fend off invading Mongols.
According to Chinese legend, the first person to attempt a trip into space was a 16th century man named Wan Hoo.
Wan, desiring to reach the moon, supposedly strapped 47 rockets to a wicker chair and had 47 assistants light the fuses.
Not a trace of him was found.
Hundreds of years later, the Chinese are no longer in the space vanguard.
The first taikonaut flew a capsule that is little more than a knock-off of the Russian Soyuz, designed in the 1960s. The Chinese launch facility in the Gobi Desert appears strikingly similar to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
But Western experts don't doubt China's desire -- or ability -- to catch up.
"What seems to be 40 years behind can come up and fool you pretty quickly," Johnson-Freese said. "Immediately, it's not a direct threat that cannot be dealt with by our capabilities and certainly our military predominance that we have with our systems that are employed in space today."
Analysts believe former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin authorized the manned program after witnessing the U.S. military's prowess in the Persian Gulf War, which had been aided by space-based assets.
But Johnson-Freese said the motivation runs deeper than that.
"I am convinced the Chinese have observed, or read the playbook, for the U.S. Apollo experience and have decided to pursue a manned space mission for exactly the same reasons that we do, and those reasons are many, not one," she said, referring to NASA's program to land humans on the moon.
The goals are to enhance international prestige, build national pride, and advance science and technology.
Another goal is to create jobs -- no less than 270,000 are employed by the Chinese space program.
Walker said it could be time for the United States to pay close attention to the growing Chinese program.
"If the Chinese decide to take leadership in this area and decide to challenge us both commercially as well as perhaps strategically, then the United States has to make a very, very clear decision about whether or not we are going to advance our space technology or whether or not we are going to rest on our laurels of the past," Walker said.