Secrecy vexes Sino-US space ties
As China announces plans for a moon orbiter within five years, scientists still wait for last mission's details.
BEIJING — With newly announced plans to launch a moon probe in a half decade, put three men into orbit by 2005, and build a small space station, Chinese officials seem to be maximizing their current moment in space history. They even got a patriotic bounce by having astronaut hero Yang Liwei go onstage in Hong Kong to sing a song with native-sonmovie star Jackie Chan.
Yet the official responses to the Oct. 16 manned launch may hold clues to the future of international cooperation with the newest member of the space club, sources say. While Russia's Vladimir Putin was immediate and effusive, the official US reaction came only when President Bush met Chinese President Hu Jintao in Bangkok days later.
Whether the US will unlock the currently closed door to shared participation in the 15-nation International Space Station, or whether China will discuss the details of its latest mission and address distrust in the American space community - could get answered in the next few months.
The nature of China's foray into the heavens - what part is military, what part civilian - and any cooperation China may seek, remains cloudy. Many US China watchers marvel that Beijing has been open at all about a program so secret that even a day before launch it was not known which of three astronauts would fly.
"China wants to wait to launch again," says Joan Johnson-Freese, a specialist with the Naval War College in Rhode Island. "Right now they've got a hero. They can rest on their laurels. They will go trawling in the international community to see what kind of cooperation they can get. They will probably start with the Europeans, and I think they will be well received."
China is already partnering with Europe on their Galileo navigation satellite system, an alternative to the US global positioning system.
"Everyone has reached out to talk about expanding cooperation with the Chinese with the exception of one country," says Ms. Johnson-Freese.
US authorities, however, will want greater actual give and take. Several report the experience of travel to China, being questioned closely about the American program, only to find a wall going up when questions were asked about the Chinese program.
Some former NASA officials say they are eager to find out the number of "redundant" systems in the Chinese program - the word used to describe backup systems such as extra computers, escape routes, and so on - designed to save the astronauts lives.
"The sophistication of your redundancy tells whether you have a real manned program, or not," says Robert Sieck, a former Apollo launch control director. Without these safety precautions - which account for 60 percent of NASA's time and money, according to Mr. Sieck - it is highly risky to launch people on a regular basis.
Astronaut Jon McBride, a veteran of the early Challenger program, is a past president of the Association of Space Explorers, which includes members from more than 30 countries. He said last month that the Chinese have been approached about joining but "it is a little difficult to include them when they shut you out. We would love to have them participate, but we think they need to open up a little first."
The publicity machine in Beijing has slowed in the past few days following China's achievement as the third nation to successfully launch a man into space and bring him safely home. The recovered Shenzhou V capsule, a scorched blunt hulk of light green metal, was on display until last week at the same site where then President Jiang Zemin celebrated China's capture of the 2008 Olympic bid two summers ago. But the capsule that put Chinese astronaut Yang into orbit last month is now in Hong Kong - along with Yang.
A hero of China's October skies and a newly promoted full colonel, Yang is expected to counter some of the skepticism felt in the former British colony about Beijing. Yet even Yang's role as hero has been modest; until the Hong Kong visit, his appearances had nearly stopped.
Despite new space websites, glossy magazines, the six-minute delayed broadcast of the launch, and the personal touches about Yang - that he ate kung pao chicken and that he saw the outline of China's coast from his capsule - little is known about the mission.
For all its value as a new addition to the planet's hopes for seeking out new forms of life and expanding the horizons of the known - the Shenzhou program is still quite solidly embedded in the Chinese military system, experts say. Yang was sent off by a military official, and greeted upon return by a military official. Indeed, the Shenzhou V recovery took place on the anniversary of China first successful nuclear weapons test in 1964, a symbol not lost on some Chinese commentators.
In the aftermath of the US led wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Chinese military has taken note of US satellite systems that coordinate attacks. Sources say it is US satellites that most concern the Chinese. As Johnson-Freese put it in a paper delivered Friday at Harvard, "The Chinese, while advocating a treaty to ban space weapons, have also made no bones about working on anti-satellite technology. Kinetic energy weapons, jammers, parasite satellites that can surreptitiously attach themselves to other satellites, and high-powered ground-based lasers [have] all been on the Chinese menu of options being pursued. The Chinese are also interested in navigation satellites, which can enhance missile targeting capabilities."
One possibility for cooperation between China and the US is a series of ice-breaker steps, sources say. Along with a number of low-level, noncontroversial space science projects, the US could still get involved in "Double Star," a Chinese initiative for tracking the magnetic storms in the atmosphere that cause satellite disfunction.