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China aims for 'prestige' of human spaceflight

Space experts say this photo, which surfaced on the Internet, shows a test craft of the type that could carry humans into space. The photo was reportedly taken at a Chinese launch facility.   

June 30, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT)

In this story:

Next men on the moon?

Looking for prestige


By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- China's plan to put two men in space by the end of 2000 is part of a larger program that aspires to launch an independent space station and achieve a lunar landing early in the next millennium, according to reports and experts. Those feats would make China the world's third nation with a far-reaching human spaceflight capability.

The first launch in the program -- an unmanned spacecraft -- is set for October 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China, experts say. Chinese astronauts, called taikonauts and first trained by Russians in 1996, are expected to go up in a rocket-launched spacecraft nine to 12 months later.

Intelligence and military experts have known about China's growing rocket capabilities for years, with much of the technology bought from Russia. Some of the newer evidence of a human space program includes photos reportedly taken by a contract worker of an escape tower at the top of a rocket capable of launching a heavy payload. That payload could be astronauts and systems to support them.

"That tower is something you only see on manned launches," said British space expert Phillip Clark on Tuesday. "Mercury had one. Apollo had one. (The Russian spacecraft) Soyuz had one.

"That exists simply to take cosmonauts, or taikonauts, in this case, away from an exploding launch vehicle," he said.

New evidence also shows that China has launch pads and rockets capable of sending humans into space as part of what China calls "Project 921." China is expected to use a Chang Zheng 2F "Long March" rocket, which can put 10 metric tons into orbit, Clark said. A more advanced rocket to be introduced a few years down the line can put 70 metric tons into orbit, he said, which would be enough payload capacity to put a space station into orbit or to go to the moon.

Chinese leaders have announced the country's human space flight plans on the radio and via other state-run media, but they reportedly are angry that details of the program have leaked out.

Some of those details and photos have surfaced recently on the Internet, including a site called "Dragon in Space" or "Go Taikonauts!"

Next men on the moon?

"The next footsteps on the moon could be Chinese," Clark said. "They'd beat the Russians." The Chinese government is not part of the 16-nation International Space Station effort headed up by NASA. Clark puts China's taikonaut count at 20 and says the Project 921 spacecraft looks like the Russian Soyuz, which has been used to carry cosmonauts to and from orbiting space stations such as the Mir.

In an upcoming report to a British periodical called Jane's Intelligence Review, Clark calls the maiden manned Chinese flight the "most ambitious" of its kind by any country. The flight will carry two taikonauts and will last for at least a day, he writes. China's second or third human flight likely will involve the docking of two spacecraft as part of an effort to transfer a crew to a space station module, he writes. That could occur within a year of the first human launch.

Looking for prestige

U.S. military space expert Dwayne A. Day called China's motivation "prestige -- plain and clear." "The whole idea is that it makes them one of the big boys, one of the great powers," Day said. "It's a great status symbol, not much more. There are no really good science reasons why they need to do this."

Space exploration never has been a priority for the Communist country, he said. At one time, the agency required space researchers to run enterprises such as a bicycle factory to generate profits to fund space projects, Day said. Although the growth of NASA in the 1960s was largely prompted by competition with the Soviet space program, which beat the United States into space with Sputnik in 1957 and put the first human into space in 1961, NASA today perceives no threat by the latest development in the Chinese space program.

"That has absolutely no impact on the direction of NASA's human space flight program," said NASA spokeswoman Debra Rahn.

NASA currently allocates 40 percent of its budget to human space flight, she said. The news that China plans to put men in space is ironic, said American University astronomer and NASA consultant Richard Berendzen, because the Chinese were the first to invent rocketry. But now they lag far behind, he said.

"Does it threaten the United States? No. Does it say that China is dead serious about building manned space flight program? Yes," Berendzen said. "They are well behind the U.S. and aren't going to be in big leagues right away." But 20 to 30 years from now, he said, China undoubtably will be a major player in human spaceflight.

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American University
Encyclopedia Astronautica
   • Encyclopedia Astronautica - Chinese Manned Space Program: Behind Closed Doors
   •  Project 921
Go Taikonauts! - An Unofficial Chinese Space Website
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