Chinese Satellite Heading for Lunar Orbit Showcases Ambitious Space Program

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 25, 2007

BEIJING, Oct. 24 -- China launched a satellite rocketing toward lunar orbit Wednesday evening, the latest step in an ambitious national program to send more men into space, build a space station and eventually land Chinese astronauts on the moon.

The satellite, called Chang'e after a legendary Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, was lifted into space atop a white-painted Long March 3A rocket that blasted off at 6:05 p.m. from the Xichang Launch Center in Sichuan province in central China. The China National Space Administration said Chang'e was scheduled to enter a lunar orbit on Nov. 5 and send back images and analyses of the moon's surface for about a year.

The trouble-free liftoff, with flame and white smoke billowing out of the rocket, was heralded by commentators and broadcast live on government television, underlining the Communist Party's desire to cultivate national pride in a growing list of accomplishments in space. The launch took place just two days after a national Communist Party congress acclaimed Hu Jintao for a second five-year term as party leader, president and military chief.

"The launch shows our comprehensive state power," said Jiao Weixin, a professor at Peking University's School of Earth and Space Sciences. "It can help to improve our image in the world. Chinese would feel excited and greatly encouraged by just having a Chinese Nobel Prize winner, let alone having the chance to prove to the world our capability to explore space."

Jiao noted that China, which first sent a man into space in 2003 and repeated the exploit with a two-man team in 2005, still lags far behind the United States and Russia in space exploration. Japan launched a probe into lunar orbit for the first time on Oct. 5, and India has a similar plan on the drawing board. But Jiao described Wednesday's launch as a milestone for China's efforts, signifying that Chinese engineers have the know-how to probe the moon.

"Chinese people will be encouraged by it," he said.

Li Hang, 24, who advises students seeking to study abroad, agreed, but he expressed doubt that exploits in space would have an immediate impact on the daily lives of China's 1.3 billion people. "However," he added, "it definitely will have an impact on China's national defense ability and the relationships between China and other countries."

In addition to serving as a rallying point for national pride, China's 50-year-old space exploration program has begun to return commercial profits. Chinese rockets for a number of years have been launching other countries' satellites at attractive rates. Last May, Chinese technicians launched a Chinese-manufactured communications satellite for Nigeria, marking the first time China had built a commercial satellite and sent it into orbit on contract for another country.

Launch officials were definitely into the business spirit Wednesday. They charged tourists a little over $100 for access to two viewing platforms at the launch site, about 1,000 miles southwest of Beijing.

Although Chinese leaders emphasize that their goal is peaceful space exploration in cooperation with other nations, the fast-paced and well-funded program has raised fears it could also have military applications. The military has been in charge of space exploration since the program began. Troops successfully test-fired an anti-satellite missile in January, destroying an out-of-date weather satellite in what some analysts interpreted as a sign U.S. military satellites could be vulnerable in case of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

China has laid out plans to follow the Chang'e lunar approach with an attempt to land a vessel on the moon and deploy a vehicle to rove its surface within the next five years. According to the China National Space Administration, if that experiment is successful, the following step, over the subsequent five years, would be to send a ship to the moon that could gather soil samples and return to Earth.

The goal of putting astronauts on the moon also has been much talked about in China. Hu Shixiang, who was deputy commander of the manned space flight program, said two years ago that China hopes to have men on the moon by 2020 if the pace of funding is kept up. But the Chinese government, which draws up its space exploration plans in five-year increments, has avoided pinning itself down to a specific date.

Chinese space engineers have scheduled another manned vehicle launch, including a spacewalk, for 2008. A government-endorsed blueprint also calls for a rendezvous between two spacecraft and the construction of a space laboratory in coming years.

China also is seeking to join the International Space Station program, which includes the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil and 11 European Space Agency countries, according to Li Xueyong, vice minister of science and technology. Li said China is eager to cooperate with other countries in space.

Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut sent into space, said during the Community Party's 17th National Congress last week that his colleagues in the space program have wondered about starting the party's first branch in space. It would be possible, he said, if China can develop a station large enough to hold three people -- the minimum for starting a cell.

Researchers Li Jie and Xu Tianxing contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company