The Chinese government unveiled a five-year plan for space exploration late last week, reaffirming its goal of catching up to an American space program that has begun to shrink in recent years. From The New York Times:
Coupled with China’s earlier vows to build a space station and put an astronaut on the moon, the plan conjured up memories of the cold-war-era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States, which has de-emphasized manned spaceflight in recent years, is now dependent on Russia for transporting its astronauts to the International Space Station. Russia, for its part, has suffered an embarrassing string of failed satellite launchings.
China has been looking for ways to exert its growing economic strength and to demonstrate that its technological mastery and scientific achievements can approach those of any global power. The plan announced Thursday calls for launching a space lab and collecting samples from the moon, all by 2016, along with a more powerful manned spaceship and space freighters.
The plan shows how the government intends to draw on military and civilian resources to meet the goals, which the government is betting will also produce benefits for the Chinese economy. “This approach offers lessons for other advanced space powers, including the U.S., which needs to make sure it sustains its high-level investment in various aspects of space development across the board,” said Andrew S. Erickson, a professor at the United States Naval War College who has studied the Chinese space program.
China had already announced plans for up to two manned space missions in 2012 following the successful November docking exercise between the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and the Tiangong 1 module, which was also launched in October. Forbes notes that the white paper, published in full by China Daily, reveals an ambitious focus on pointing China beyond the accomplishments of Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong 1:
Of particular interest about this white paper is a definite focus on moving the Chinese space program past just orbital concerns. Already, the Chinese have suffered a setback because their first satellite intended to orbit Mars was part of the payload of the Russian Phobos-Grunt probe, which failed to leave Earth’s orbit.
However, the white paper is clearly indicative of a desire for more ambitious deep space missions, with a goal towards pushing forward “its exploration of planets, asteroids and the sun of the solar system.” A demonstration of such a project is on the agenda for the next five years.
The next five years will also see China paving the way towards putting a human being on the Moon, making it only the second country to have done so. China has already successfully launched two lunar orbiters in 2007 and 2010. For its next phase, China plans to put rovers on the Moon to collect samples. After that, during this five year period China also plans to send a rover to the Moon, collect samples, and then return to Earth.
The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Blog claims that the white paper is an attempt by the Chinese government to confirm its peaceful intentions to a global community which fears that China’s space program is motivated by military priorities. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei confirmed such a stance in a daily press briefing in Beijing following the release of the white paper, according to The People’s Daily.