China’s first spacewalk: no cold-war race this time
The Shenzhou 7 launches Thursday in an era of global space cooperation.
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For its part, China is increasingly integrating into global space efforts, space analysts say. It’s striving to become the satellite and launch service provider of choice to the developing world, notes David Vaccaro, senior analyst at the Futron Corporation, an aerospace consulting and market analysis firm in Bethesda, Md. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of the Futron Corporation.]Skip to next paragraph
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In May 2007, he says, the Chinese launched the Nigerian government’s NIGCOMSAT 1, which aims to provide a satellite telecommunications system across a broad swath of Africa. Beijing has collaborated with Brazil on remote sensing satellites. And it’s taking part in Europe’s Galileo project – a global navigation system similar to the US’s satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) and Russia’s emerging Glonass navigation system.
Moreover, China co-chairs, along with the US, South Africa, and the European Commission, the executive committee governing the Group on Earth Observations. The group is coordinating the establishment of a broad network of environmental monitoring systems, including satellites.
Although technologically China could be on the verge of having capabilities that would allow it to participate in the International Space Station, such a move would require a significant political decision in the US, several space policy analysts say.
To join the ISS would require changes in the way China conducts itself, suggests Scott Pace, who heads the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “The lesson from a lot of human spaceflight work is the incredible degree of transparency that’s required” in order to operate joint manned projects safely.
It took a decade of working together with the Russians after they joined the space station project in 1993 to reach a point where both sides were comfortable working with each other as truly integrated partners, he says.
Indeed, he says, a long period elapsed and a historic political shift in the former Soviet Union occurred before the first US-Soviet joint mission – Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 – took place and the US and its partners embraced Russia as a full partner in a manned-spaceflight project.
With respect to China, “people need to be fairly modest in starting, and recognize all the other things that have to be done before you take on more ambitious activities,” says Dr. Pace.
For some analysts, it’s unclear how badly China wants in. The Chinese government’s own white papers on space stress that it should develop an independent capability for human spaceflight, including a space station. And like Europe, China funds its space effort over several years at a time.
US space budget a “mess”
In speaking with Chinese space officials and aerospace-industry officials, the Chinese remain concerned that if they do become involved in projects the US leads, changes in the US budget process or in bilateral relations would “mess up their timetables,” Kulacki says.
In the end, several space policy specialists say, much of the talk of a new space race, at least on the civilian side, comes from the US, where political interests want to try to garner more money for an admittedly cash-strapped NASA. After all, they say, if China puts humans on the moon around 2020 – about the time the US plans to return – it will still be the second country in history to send people to the moon and back.
“Space is an international, highly symbolic and strategic thing,” Pace says. “It is something that follows from US foreign-policy objectives; it doesn’t drive them. It’s a mistake to take the space race term and just blindly apply it. On the other hand, it does matter if the US is not there and others are. It does matter if others have capabilities to do things that we no longer have. We should not look at this so much as a race with them but as a question to ourselves: What are we as a nation capable of, and is this still important to us.”