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China Keeps Reaching for the Stars

Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong, right, and Nie Haisheng work in the reentry capsule of the Shenzhou 6, which was launched Wednesday.
Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong, right, and Nie Haisheng work in the reentry capsule of the Shenzhou 6, which was launched Wednesday. (By Zha Chunming -- New China News Agency Via Associated Press)

Completing the program will probably take several years, said Johnson-Freese, chairman of the War College's National Security Decisionmaking Department, and the station probably will be built from linked orbiting modules. The Long March rockets, with only about one-sixth the lift capacity of the space shuttle, cannot hoist large components into space.

Shenzhou 6 marks the latest achievement in a deliberate program that launched its first satellite in 1970 but then languished for years during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the power struggles of the Gang of Four.

During this period, and even before then, China learned to fend for itself in space. "Part of it was that they had no choice," Cheng said, as China was estranged from both the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's other space-faring nations.

But another part was the Communist Party leadership's wish to showcase Chinese self-reliance in a high-profile scientific and technological endeavor.

In the beginning, China regarded space as a tool for economic development. "They were interested in Earth-resource satellites -- finding fertile land, rainfall, figuring out to build railroads," Cheng said. "Then over time they branched out in communications and began looking at navigation."

Also, added Johnson-Freese, space "is something that the party has done for China to create jobs in a high-tech industry, to show 'We don't just make cheap clothes.' And finally there is all this dual-use technology with civil and military applications."

But it was not until the 1991 Persian Gulf War that China began to appreciate the military potential of space. The Gulf War allies' use of satellite surveillance and smart bombs "was an enormous wake-up call," Cheng said. "There were communications and sensors. The idea that space-based systems were part of weapons guidance came as something of a shock."

Since then, Cheng added, there has been "a tension between guns and butter" in China's space policy, with military advocates trying to carve out more influence despite the continued commitment to economic development.

Space's military potential is what drives the United States' wariness in dealing with China, but Johnson-Freese said dual use is endemic to any space program as long as rockets can launch both weather satellites and nuclear weapons, and satellite-mounted cameras can image both stars and targets.

But China's human spaceflight program is about more than military applications, Johnson-Freese added: "They read the Apollo playbook. They get a lot of prestige from this, and you don't hold parades for robots."

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