Space Inspires Passion And Practicality in China

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 25, 2008

BEIJING -- When he's in Beijing for meetings, Ouyang Ziyuan works out of an office overlooking the new Olympic Green, home to the Water Cube aquatics center and the Bird's Nest national stadium, the latest icons of China's coming of age.

On one wall of that office hangs a large image of the moon; on the wall opposite, there's Mars. Both pictures were shot from U.S. satellites. Ouyang should soon be able to replace one of those with the next icon of China's rise: the highest-resolution map yet of the entire surface of the moon, pieced together from images taken by China's Chang'e lunar probe, named after a mythological Chinese moon goddess. Ouyang is the project's chief scientist.

"Now that we've managed to send men into space, it's time for us to do more with probing the moon, to push forward the development of science and technology," said Ouyang, one of China's most passionate supporters of lunar exploration.

At a casual glance, China's space program seems a tad retro. There's talk of a rover that, within the next decade, could land on the moon, take surface samples and return to Earth. Chinese astronauts will attempt their first-ever spacewalk as early as this week. Americans and Russians surpassed these scientific feats decades ago.

But the "been there, done that" appearance masks the deeper significance of China's multipronged space program. It has developed sophisticated launchers and satellites, which it builds by the dozens and sends skyward for friends and paying clients, conservatively aiming to capture 15 percent of the global market for such services. China is building partnerships to support its manned space program, with hopes of creating its own space station and potentially exploiting the resources of the moon, various asteroids and perhaps even Mars to meet energy and other needs here on Earth. China is experimenting with antisatellite and other space-based capabilities to counter the overwhelming U.S. dominance of extraterrestrial territory. All the while, it is training and inspiring a new generation of engineers and scientists -- hundreds of thousands of them.

"It's clear that China has decided that one symbol of the aspirations of a major global power is a comprehensive and successful space program," said John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's space policy institute.

Experts such as Logsdon say China still has a long way to go to catch up to the technologies of the United States and Russia, and to outpace other countries such as Japan and India with their own space aspirations. But like many other aspects of China's growing influence, China's designs in space are seen as a threat by some U.S. experts, especially because almost all its operations are cloaked in secrecy.

"They are less transparent than even Russia," Logsdon said.

Both India and Japan eye China's space ambitions a bit warily. India has a sophisticated program but is behind China technologically, and it is unclear how much money it can dedicate to space exploration, said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. India is seeking military capabilities, largely out of concern about China. So, too, is Japan. Hitchens said Japan has mostly a niche space program not targeted to military use, but it could swing that way if it sees China as a threat.

Space experts outside China are generally at a loss to describe how its various space programs -- manned and unmanned, civil and military -- are organized and overseen, except that the vast bulk of its efforts are under the direction of the People's Liberation Army. No official from China's space agencies or government-owned space companies would be interviewed for this article.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) is one of the few U.S. officials ever allowed to tour the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, a sprawling military facility in remote Inner Mongolia where China launches its manned Shenzhou spacecraft. Feeney recalled that, during his 2006 visit, he saw military personnel stationed every 50 yards or so along a road between Jiuquan and the nearest town -- a drive that took about two hours. When he finally entered the base and met the top two officials there, the men apologized profusely because they did not have business cards to offer him. "They said they never had visitors before," Feeney said.

Feeney came away impressed -- and daunted.

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