China’s first spacewalk: no cold-war race this time
The Shenzhou 7 launches Thursday in an era of global space cooperation.
Fifty years after the dawn of the Space Age, China is solidifying its position as only the third nation to launch humans in orbit.Skip to next paragraph
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If all goes well, three “taikonauts” will embark Thursday on a three-day Earth-orbit mission, which includes the country’s first spacewalk.
But space is no longer the domain of the US, Russia, or even China. It’s a global affair.
“It’s not two players any more. In space exploration and Earth observation, you have capabilities around the world. So the question is: How do we move forward” [together]? says Vincent Sabathier, a former official with the French Space Agency CNES and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Eleven nations launch satellites, and 50 countries are operating their own satellites. The cold-war concept of a “space race” is yielding to deepening international cooperation. China and the US are even talking about working together.
China’s latest mission is part of a carefully orchestrated program to advance the country’s technological capabilities. And it’s driven by China’s desire for “a place for [its] mat” on the international spaceflight stage, says Gregory Kulacki, who specializes in global security issues and China with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
For the United States, whose human spaceflight program is in the middle of an uneasy transition from space shuttle to Constellation program, cooperation with China has proceeded in fits and starts, analysts say.
China’s antisatellite weapon
Not surprisingly, China’s test of an antisatellite weapon in January 2007 – followed by the US Navy’s downing of a crippled US spy satellite in February – chilled cooperative overtures. Indeed, prior to China’s weapon test, members of the US-China Working Group in the US House of Representatives had expressed interest in exploring the possibility of inviting the Chinese to take part in the International Space Station (ISS) project, Dr. Kulacki says.
Recently, however, prospects for closer US-Chinese space cooperation appear to have brightened. In June, the US Treasury Department lifted sanctions against China imposed after allegations surfaced that China was helping Iran develop its missile program.
“That was important,” says Peggy Finarelli, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official and a senior fellow at the Center for Aerospace Policy Research at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
A month later, NASA’s Michael O’Brien, assistant administrator for external relations, who is responsible for the agency’s international relations, traveled to China and met with top Chinese space officials.
They reportedly agreed to work more closely on Earth- and space-science efforts. These agreements, Ms. Finarelli says, typically precede meetings between program-specific people on individual projects.