BY unveiling China's most powerful rocket ever, aerospace engineers have underscored how the ambition of Beijing policymakers has lagged behind the country's leap from rice paddy to launch pad and into space. The Long March 2E rocket could lift China into the elite group of countries engaged in manned space exploration, say aerospace experts.
But while China's engineers have raised the country up by its sandal straps to become a major aerospace power, the government has delayed backing a manned space program. Beyond launching commercial satellites, Beijing seems not to know what to do with its new spaceflightheft, the experts say.
The government has wavered before over the question of manned spacefaring. On at least three occasions since 1971, the experts say, China has quietly begun training astronauts but then disbanded the program because of either paltry funding or political infighting.
Space officials in China say that Beijing is now deliberating over the financing and goals for a manned space program, but they decline to discuss the proposed options in detail.
Some Chinese experts say a decision will be made within a year on the extent of projects ranging from a shuttle to a space station, according to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, China will probably not put a man in space until the year 2000, says Wei Jinhe, director of the Institute of Space Medicine in Beijing. The institute would take a leading role in selecting and training astronauts from among soldiers and scientists, he says.
China announced plans in 1987 to develop a shuttle and space station, but budgetary limits have nailed such plans to the drawing board, say aerospace officials in China. They say they hope the Long March 2E will earn precious hard currency for such major projects.
The rocket has a bigger payload capacity than the European Space Agency's Ariane 4, the most widely used commercial rocket in the world. Officials expect the Long March 2E will be a leading rival in the lucrative business of commercial satellite delivery as long as Western governments allow it to carry satellites made in their countries.
In an effort to save time and money, China is likely to put its first astronauts into space aboard foreign rockets, say foreign aerospace experts.
Beijing is considering a Soviet offer made last year to take a Chinese astronaut into space, says Wang Dehan, a specialist in astronaut selection at the Institute of Space Medicine. China accepted a similar invitation from the United States last decade.
Technicians and administrators at the Xichang Launch Center are clearly itching to light the engines beneath a man and rocket.
Luo Tao, a spokesman for the center, says China is training astronauts in Beijing and Shanghai. It plans to send up a manned spaceship ``as soon as possible,'' says Liang Yaoting, director of mission control.
But Dr. Wei and other leading space administrators in Beijing, who must cope with down-to-earth financial and political constraints, deny that China is currently preparing men for space.
Officials at the remote, wooded launch center in Xichang also confront practical obstacles in their eagerness to blast a manned spaceshot skyward.
Under the direction of the People's Liberation Army, the center follows what Premier Li Peng calls the maxim of ``self-reliance and hard struggle.'' Armed soldiers dressed in battle fatigues and helmets give the complex the no-nonsense look of a military outpost.
At dawn, an army bugle faintly sounds across the center's narrow valley as if declaring the urgency of building a space program in a wilderness sparsely inhabited by Yi minority peasants. A farmer in worn, patchwork clothes rides in a donkey-drawn cart that rumbles by aerospace technicians dressed in powder-blue smocks, who appear to have come from a different planet, if not another age.
Thanks to simple technology and hard-headed planning, China's first astronaut could sit atop a Long March rocket with comparative confidence, at least according to official accounts.
China claims to have successfully completed 27 satellite launches, beginning when it put up a 380-pound orb in 1970 that broadcast the Maoist anthem ``The East is Red'' (see timeline at left).
China does not announce launch failures, but the government has acknowledged that some of its rockets and missiles have exploded at various stages of flight. In 1988, the official press reported that more than 400 people had died in connection with the rocket and missile program since 1958.
Like engineers at the launch center, scientists at the Institute of Space Medicine in Beijing also betray impatience with the government's fickle attitude toward manned spaceflight.
Since the institute was established 22 years ago, scientists have prepared men for space three times.
The scientists have strapped the prospective spacemen in a booth and swung them like a clapper in a bell. The trainees have been whipped around in giant circles on a centrifuge, flung skyward within a four-story tower to simulate blastoff, and spun in a revolving chair, Wei says.
But each time, higher officials have told the scientists to turn off the machinery and send the earthbound astronauts back to their barracks.
Ultra-radical followers of the Maoist ``Gang of Four'' scuttled the first astronaut training program begun in 1971, says Dr. Wang, the Space Medicine Institute's specialist in astronaut selection.
Beijing called off another training project in the early '80s because of economic difficulties and insufficient funding, according to Dr. Logsdon at the Space Policy Institute in Washington.
The state halted the most recent effort in 1986 because of a cash shortage and the fading of hopes to hitch a ride on the United States shuttle after the explosion of the Challenger, Wang says.
``The institute would strongly support a manned space project,'' says Wei, the director of the Institute of Space Medicine.
``We are short of funds, though, and we must be subject to the state plan and take a long-term view,'' he says, as a scientist attaches electrodes to a man strapped into ``the swinging chamber'' for the institute's research into motion sickness.
``Next time there's a call for astronauts, we could have them ready very quickly,'' Wei says.