The Chinese have no idle interest in the commercial use of space technology. Witness the thousands of Chinese -- among them military officers, research scientists, and engineering students -- gathering around the models and video displays of the United States National Aerospace Exhibition here.
But an even more tangible show of commitment came last week, when China's Ministry of Astronautics confirmed that its subsidiary, the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, had signed a memorandum of understanding with Teresat, Inc., of Houston to launch two communications satellites. The first launch is planned for late 1987, the second for 1988.
The ministry also reported it was discussing a possible third launch with Western Union. Earlier this year, it said it had reached preliminary agreement to launch a satellite for a Swedish company. Since China announced last October that it would commercialize the use of its carrier rockets, the Long March 2 and Long March 3, some 10 countries have shown an interest in using Chinese launches, a Ministry official said recently.
China's advances in space technology are largely due to the determined efforts of a handful of scientists and engineers. These workers have faced the challenge of solving problems in isolation and with limited resources, endured popular anti-intellecutual prejudice, and suffered from past political upheavals. Despite this, the results of their work have impressed foreign observers.
At the Peking aerospace show last week, a US official described the Long March 3 as a ``very good vehicle.''
``To the extent there is available space, China certainly has the potential to be a commercial competitor,'' said Crawford W. Brubaker, assistant secretary for aerospace in the US Department of Commerce.
The show, which ends Wednesday, is being put on by 70 US companies. It offers an unprecedented taste of the aeronautic and space technology for which China has been hungering for decades. Representatives from US manufacturers of aircraft, spacecraft, and related equipment are answering detailed questions and handing out glossy folders by the boxload.
Only a few foreign experts have visited China's rocket factories and research facilities, its launch centers in Sichuan Province and in Gansu, or its ground-control station at Xi'an. Some expressed surprise at what they saw.
``They are doing some of the same things and examining some of the same parameters as US engineers,'' said Kenneth Coughlin, a vice-president of Martin Marietta, a leading US aerospace company. Mr. Coughlin said he thought China's record of 18 successful rocket launches is ``pretty good'' and that the risk for using China's launch services is relatively low.
China launched its first satellite in 1970 and has had only one complete failure since, though foreign observers say there was at least one other unsuccessful launch not rated a total loss. This record of success has been the major selling point in China's attempt to market its services abroad, especially in view of recent setbacks in the US space program and growing worldwide demand for launch services. The commercialization of China's space program is part of a government policy to have the national defense industry make a profit that would defray the cost of maintaining a sizable military and, eventually, help pay for its modernization. China's aerospace agencies also hope that by cooperating with foreign companies, they may also pick up new technology.
Early this year, China signed contracts with a US and a European marketing company to sell its space services to foreign customers. Astronautics Minister Li Xue has said the services include launch support, orbit management, and insurance. Despite such marketing efforts abroad, Chinese space officials are wary of the press and so far have refused to meet with foreign reporters, saying that reports already published contain the only information available on the nation's space program.
Some of the foreign experts who have had an inside look say that China's rocket technology is at the level of the US's in the early 1970s. While China's launch capabilities are strong, the experts say, they have questions on the interface between the launcher and satellite. Reportedly Chinese engineers are working to improve the rockets' third stage, which boosts the payload into final geosynchronous orbit. China has launched two satellites into geosyncrhonous orbit and plans to launch some 300 by the year 2000, says the official Economics Daily, primarily to upgrade domestic telecommunications.