China Blasts into Space

As China launched and successfully docked it’s first manned spaceship since 2008, the country’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, joined two other astronauts to carry out their first manned docking mission. The New York Times reports:

The successful launching of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, powered by a Long March 2F rocket, was shown live on state television from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert in western China.

The crew is expected to spend up to 20 days in space and dock with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab module, a kind of miniature space station, which China launched in September 2011. The crew will conduct experiments and live for a time in the space module.

China has spent billions in the past decade to build a space program to compete with the United States and Russia, and it plans to eventually put a Chinese astronaut on the moon, perhaps by 2016.

The launching put China’s first woman into space, a 33-year-old air force pilot named Liu Yang.

Along with reports on the launch, the BBC also ran a profile of Liu.

State TV, which has aired documentaries about her, says she trained to fly transport planes and was cool under pressure after a multiple bird strike disabled one engine on her plane.

Hailing from the central province of Henan, she is also described as an eloquent speaker, an avid reader and a lover of cooking.

“From day one I have been told I am no different from the male astronauts,” she told state media.

“As a pilot, I flew in the sky. Now that I am an astronaut, I will fly in space. This flight will be much higher and further away.”

Aside from reports about China’s first female astronaut, analysts are also claiming that space missions could have implications beyond scientific advancement, according to the New Yorker:

There are arguments for space programs, of course: They rally national pride, attract talent to science, and throw off inventions with valuable new military and civilian uses. But watching China hurl one object after another into orbit, one can’t help but wonder if it says less about China’s dynamism in technology than about the obstacles it faces in becoming a true world leader. As the Wall Street Journal notes today,

When Chinese leaders approved the plan for a space station in 1992, “Chinese space professionals believed they would be latecomers to an expanding human presence in low Earth orbit,” Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a recent research note. “Ironically, by the time they finish their space station in the early 2020s, the Chinese might be the only people left up there.”

Over the last decade, China has moved with purpose, putting its first person into space, completing an inaugural spacewalk, and launching two lunar orbiters. But it is not doing anything rash; the pace, four missions in four years, is a stately one. “China’s careful, sustainable approach cannot be compared to some early Soviet ‘firsts,’ which took safety shortcuts in order to achieve politically-timed space spectaculars,” according to Andrew Erickson, of the U.S. Naval War College. “By working on its own terms, on its own time, Beijing is building for the future.” The caution also reflects the risk that when a project becomes so closely identified with national pride, its success or failure becomes doubly significant.

This mission is the first step to build a Chinese space station by 2020, but there are also reports about further developing China’s space program. The Wall Street Journal adds:

Now that docking technology has been achieved, analysts say, other significant hurdles to establishing a space station include the logistics of keeping humans alive in space for extended periods.

A Chinese space station’s launch will also rely in part on the successful development of the Long March-5 rocket, which officials have said will make its maiden flight in 2014.

Additionally, according to defense analysts, China is developing optical imaging technologies and near-real-time data-communication systems that will allow it to monitor U.S. naval activity in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing also is seeking to cut its reliance on the U.S. Global Positioning System, which the U.S. could in theory deny access to in the event of a conflict.

While the launch was successful, Global Times editor Hu Xijin’s post on the success of the launch garnered criticism, and he responded to critics telling them to get their ‘heads checked.’ From The Shanghaiist:

Global Times editor Hu Xijin (胡锡进) rallies the troops over the successful launch of Shenzhou 9 in a post on Sina Weibo that has attracted 6,000 retweets and 3,000 comments:

With the successful launch of Shenzhou 9, yet another great step has been made by Chinese space research. This progress has created conditions for China’s overall advancement and China should wisely use opportunities like this to do good for all the people. If China can do space well, it shows that as long as we put our mind to it and work hard, we can solve all of the most complex problems. Let us make that determination! May our astronauts complete their mission and come back safely.

When his remarks ignited an avalanche of criticism and debate, he followed up with a word of advice to critics:

If you’re happy for the successful launch of Shenzhou 9, you’re a normal Chinese person. If you have not the slightest care for it, you are also a normal Chinese person. But if it has made you unhappy, or even angry, my advice to you is to get your heads checked. Because you’re probably very special, often depressed, and seldom happy. This can’t be good for your health.

Read more about developments in China’s space program, via CDT.


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