China shoots the moon And the U.S. watches ner­vously

Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion talks of strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion, but Bei­jing is keep­ing a lid on the most sen­si­tive de­tails of its space pro­gram’s fu­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEITH B. RICH­BURG IN BEI­JING rich­burgk@wash­ Staff re­searchers Liu Liu in Bei­jing and Wang Juan in Shang­hai con­trib­uted to this re­port.

China’s grand am­bi­tions ex­tend lit­er­ally to the moon, with the coun­try now em­barked on a multi-pronged pro­gram to es­tab­lish its own global nav­i­ga­tional sys­tem, launch a space lab­o­ra­tory and put a Chi­nese as­tro­naut on the moon within the next decade.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion views space as ripe ter­ri­tory for co­op­er­a­tion with China. De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates has called it one of four po­ten­tial ar­eas of “strate­gic di­a­logue,” along with cy­ber­se­cu­rity, mis­sile de­fense and nu­clear weapons. And Pres­i­dent Obama and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao vowed af­ter their White House sum­mit last week to “deepen di­a­logue and ex­changes” in the field.

But as China ramps up its space ini­tia­tives, the diplo­matic talk of co­op­er­a­tion has so far found lit­tle trac­tion. The Chi­nese lead­er­ship has shown scant in­ter­est in open­ing up the most sen­si­tive de­tails of its pro­gram, much of which is con­trolled by the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA).

At the same time, Chi­nese sci­en­tists and space of­fi­cials say that Washington’s wari­ness of China’s in­ten­tions in space, as well as U.S. bans on some high-technology ex­ports, makes co­op­er­a­tion prob­lem­atic.

For now, the U.S.-China re­la­tion­ship in space ap­pears to mir­ror the one on Earth — a still dom­i­nant but fad­ing su­per­power fac­ing a new and am­bi­tious ri­val, with sus­pi­cion on both sides.

“What you have are two ma­jor pow­ers, both of whom use space for mil­i­tary, civil­ian and com­mer­cial pur­poses,” said Dean Cheng, a re­searcher with the Wash­ing­ton­based Her­itage Foun­da­tion and an ex­pert on the Chi­nese mil­i­tary and space pro­gram.

NASA’s hu­man space­flight pro­gram has been in flux in re­cent years, fu­el­ing par­tic­u­lar con­cern among some U.S. ob­servers about the chal­lenge posed by China’s ini­tia­tives in that area.

There is “a lot of very wary, care­ful, mu­tual watch­ing,” Cheng said.

Song Xiao­jun, a mil­i­tary ex­pert and com­men­ta­tor on China’s CCTV, said that sub­stan­tial co­op­er­a­tion in the space field is im­pos­si­ble with­out mu­tual trust. Achiev­ing that, he said, “de­pends on whether the U.S. can put away its pride and treat China as a part­ner to co­op­er­ate on equal terms. But I don’t see that hap­pen­ing in the near fu­ture, since the U.S. is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing menopause while China is go­ing through pu­berty.”

But while China may still be an ado­les­cent in terms of space ex­plo­ration — launch­ing its first as­tro­naut in 2003 — it has made some no­table strides in re­cent months and years, and plans seem on track for some ma­jor break­throughs.

On the day Hu left for his U.S. trip, Chi­nese news me­dia re­ported the in­au­gu­ra­tion of a new pro­gram to train as­tro­nauts— called taiko­nauts here — for even­tual de­ploy­ment to the first Chi­nese space sta­tion, planned for 2015. As part of the project, two launches are planned for this year, that of an un­manned space mod­ule, called Tian­gong-1, or “Heav­enly Palace,” by sum­mer, and later an un­manned Shen­zhou space­craft that will at­tempt to dock with it.

On a sep­a­rate track, China is also work­ing through a three­stage process for car­ry­ing out its first manned moon land­ing. The first stage was com­pleted in Oc­to­ber with the suc­cess­ful launch of a Chang’e-2 lu­nar or­biter. In2012 or 2013, an un­manned land­ing craft is sched­uled to take a rover to the moon to col­lect rock and soil sam­ples. By 2020, ac­cord­ing to the plan, a taiko­naut could land on the moon.

Yet a third track is de­voted to the devel­op­ment of a Chi­nese global nav­i­ga­tional sys­tem, called Bei­dou, or “Com­pass,” to chal­lenge the cur­rent supremacy of the Amer­i­can global po­si­tion­ing sys­tem, or GPS. Bei­dou is sched­uled to pro­vide satel­lite nav­i­ga­tion ser­vices to the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion next year and to be fully global by 2020.

Chi­nese aca­demics in­volved in the space pro­gram said Bei­dou is cru­cial for China’s mil­i­tary. With­out its own nav­i­ga­tional sys­tem, Chi­nese troops and naval ves­sels must rely al­most ex­clu­sively on the Amer­i­can GPS sys­tem, which could be manipulated or blocked in case of a con­flict.

The new sys­tem “can cover the civil­ian and mil­i­tary sides,” said Xu Shi­jie, a pro­fes­sor of astro­nau­tics at Bei­hang Uni­ver­sity in Bei­jing. “For the mil­i­tary side, it’s more ur­gent.”

Xu, who heads a space re­search team, ac­knowl­edged that even some Chi­nese might ques­tion the govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to fund a costly space pro­gram at a time when there are other press­ing con­cerns, such as de­vel­op­ing the coun­try’s western prov­inces to bring liv­ing stan­dards and in­comes there into line with those in the more pros­per­ous east.

But he called the space pro­gram “a long-term in­vest­ment,” with the po­ten­tial for ben­e­fi­cial spillover ef­fects on the civil­ian econ­omy. “ The govern­ment is concerned with so­cial wel­fare is­sues,” Xu said. “But a sci­en­tist is also try­ing to look 20 years down the road.”

There is also the mat­ter of pres­tige. As with other grandiose projects— high-speed rail, the world’s biggest air­port in Bei­jing, stag­ing the 2008 Olympics — China’s Com­mu­nist lead­ers view the space pro­gram as a way to show cit­i­zens that they can pro­duce suc­cesses, thus fos­ter­ing pa­tri­o­tism and sup­port for the party’s con­tin­ued rule.

“Na­tional pride will in­crease,” Xu said. “It’s a sell­ing point used by lead­ing sci­en­tists.”

As part of the ef­fort to ex­pand pub­lic aware­ness of and ex­cite­ment about the space pro­gram, the govern­ment broke ground in De­cem­ber for a 3,000-acre space launch cen­ter and theme park on the south­ern is­land of Hainan, mod­eled af­ter the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Florida.

When the cen­ter opens in 2014, the pub­lic will be able to watch rocket launches there from an el­e­vated plat­form. The ad­ja­cent Hainan Space Park, mean­while, will be di­vided into four sec­tions, repli­cat­ing the moon, the sun, Mars and Earth. “We want to com­bine tourism with ed­u­ca­tion,” said Liu Xianbo, an of­fi­cial with China Aero­space In­ter­na­tional Hold­ings, which is build­ing the theme park.

Hainan of­fers sev­eral ad­van­tages as a launch site, com­pared with China’s ex­ist­ing, se­crecy cloaked sites in sparsely pop­u­lated ar­eas of Shanxi prov­ince, Sichuan and the Gobi Desert. It is al­ready a ma­jor tourist des­ti­na­tion. Its south­ern lo­ca­tion, closer to the equa­tor, max­i­mizes the ef­fects of Earth’s ro­ta­tion, boost­ing rocket thrust. And in the event of a mishap, launches over wa­ter, rather than land, would make res­cues eas­ier.

Hainan also has an­other ad­van­tage: Parts of the is­land are al­ready zoned for mil­i­tary use un­der the PLA’s con­trol.

“The govern­ment is concerned with so­cial wel­fare is­sues. But a sci­en­tist is also try­ing to look 20 years down the road.”

— Xu Shi­jie, pro­fes­sor of astro­nau­tics at Bei­hang Uni­ver­sity

China’s space pro­gram has a civil­ian com­po­nent, un­der the China Na­tional Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, but it is run pri­mar­ily by the mil­i­tary. That could make en­hanced co­op­er­a­tion with the United States dif­fi­cult — and not just from the Chi­nese side.

Last fall, when NASA ad­min­is­tra­tor Charles F. Bolden Jr. vis­ited China to ex­plore ar­eas where the two coun­tries could co­op­er­ate in space, two se­nior Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress — Reps. Frank R. Wolf ( Va.) and John Ab­ney Cul­ber­son (Tex.) — wrote to Bolden be­fore­hand to protest, say­ing they had “se­ri­ous con­cerns about the na­ture and goals of China’s space pro­gram” and warn­ing that “China’s in­ten­tions for its space pro­gram are ques­tion­able at best.”

Since Repub­li­cans won con­trol of the House in Novem­ber’s elec­tions, Wolf now chairs the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee’s com­merce, jus­tice and sci­ence sub­com­mit­tee, which over­sees NASA’s bud­get, and Cul­ber­son is a se­nior sub­com­mit­tee mem­ber.


Zhai Zhi­gang, cen­ter, seen with crew­mates be­fore the launch of Shen­zhou 7, be­came the first taiko­naut to walk in space on that 2008 flight.


A rocket car­ry­ing the Chang’e-2 lu­nar or­biter lifted off from Sichuan prov­ince in Oc­to­ber. The even­tual goal is a manned trip to the moon.

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