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Expert: China will not overtake U.S. in space

Risky achievement could bring economic benefits

By Richard Stenger

Home safe: China's leaders see Yan Liwei's flight as a way of boosting national prestige.
Home safe: China's leaders see Yan Liwei's flight as a way of boosting national prestige.

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(CNN) -- Given the daunting costs and harrowing risks of pushing human beings beyond the confines of Earth's atmosphere, why would a nation saddled with pressing economic and social challenges bother to send a manned mission into space instead of an unmanned one?

The answer is both simple and complicated.

"You don't throw parades for robots," quipped Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who has written numerous books about space strategy.

She and other experts on Asian space issues reason that China dispatched a manned mission for much the same reason the Soviet Union and the United States did four decades ago: national pride.

"I think it's a matter of prestige," said Dean Cheng, research analyst with Project Asia at The CNA Corp. in Washington, D.C.

"It's a crown in a lot of ways, like the Olympics. China is doing this in essence to say, 'Look, we are not a less-developed country.'"

Bob Walker, a former U.S. representative from Pennsylvania with expertise in aerospace issues, agrees.

Passing the miletone of putting man into space, he said, gives China "the aura of being a world leader in technology."

Although some might argue that the world's most-populous nation, struggling to balance its communist economy with free-market reforms, can ill afford to spend billions of dollars launching so-called taikonauts into orbit, the series of planned missions during the next decade may actually lead to significant economic benefits.

First, China's manned space program attracts many technical workers, preventing a brain drain of highly trained professionals who otherwise might leave the country for more-lucrative job prospects overseas.

"An estimated 300,000 people are working on [China's manned space program]. In fact, they deliberately over-employed it, including in skilled jobs" Johnson-Freese said.

Second, the success of Shenzhou V serves as a spectacular billboard, demonstrating to the world aerospace industry that the Chinese space launch industry is sophisticated enough to handle outside business.

The nascent Chinese commercial satellite-launch industry experienced successes in the early 1990s but has been in the doldrums in recent years, in part due to launch mishaps, according to Cheng and others.

"[The manned launch is] sort of economic advertising, which says if our technology is reliable enough to send up our people, it's reliable enough to send up your satellites," Cheng said.

Another reason for the anemic Chinese launch industry is U.S. trade restrictions that limit commerce between U.S. aerospace companies and China.

The sanctions were imposed in response to Washington's objections over Beijing's sale of military-related technology to certain regimes.

Ally or rival?

The succesful flight was cause for a national celebration.
The succesful flight was cause for a national celebration.

The Shenzhou V success, however, may encourage American businesses to press for relief, given that China charges much less for launches than its U.S. or European counterparts.

"If you have U.S. commercial satellite producers behind you, you may have a better chance of having restrictions lifted," Cheng said.

U.S. satellite companies may be helped by lower shipping costs, but the question remains, does membership in the manned space club make China an ally or rival of the U.S. government? The answer depends.

"Is the manned Chinese program something to worry about? Not really. Nobody has really come up with a military argument about man in space, which is not the same thing to say about the Chinese space program as a whole, which has clear military implications," Cheng said.

Walker agrees: "Space is an extremely important part of fighting modern warfare. What represents a threat, economically and perhaps strategically, is the technology to make this achievement."

Militarily or not, the capability of the Chinese space program is likely to place spacefaring nations like the United States and Russia on notice that they cannot rest on their laurels.

Beijing intends to send a man to the moon, perhaps within a decade, said Walker, now chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, a D.C.-based lobbying firm.

"Hopefully, this will serve as a wake-up call" that other nations need to be prepared to make more space investments, Walker said.

The United States, for example, which is struggling to come up with a replacement for the space shuttle, "needs to not simply settle for that which we are capable of doing. I think we should stretch our technological reach."

Others are not so sure that a threat exists.

The Shenzhou flight, while good for Chinese morale, does not mean that China will overtake the United States in space, Johnson-Freese said.

She cites a Council on Foreign Relations report from March that said China is at least two decades behind the United States in related technologies.

"I hope what doesn't happen is that the jubilation in China will be taken in the U.S. as threatening nationalism," she said.

"The only race that is occurring is for second place in space -- we are so far ahead."

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