While Beijing today ranks behind the top space and military powers, China once stood at the forefront of technology and weapons production.
One thousand years ago, Chinese civilization was probably the most advanced on earth. Around 970, Chinese inventor Feng Jishen developed the first rocket by attaching a tube filled with gunpowder and a fuse to an arrow. Even today, the Chinese characters for huo jian, or burning arrow, are used to describe rockets.
Five hundred years ago, a Chinese military technician experimented with what might have been man's first attempt to use rockets to fly. Chinese history books say Wan Hu tied 47 rockets to the back of a chair, strapped kites to each arm, and ordered an assistant to ignite the fuses. The world's first would-be astronaut was killed in the explosion that followed, but his name lives on in the chronicles of humanity's earliest space experiments.
China successfully launched the country's first satellite in 1970. The 380-pound device circled the globe playing the Chinese Communist anthem "The East is Red" until it burned up on reentering the earth's atmosphere.
Over the next decade, Chinese scientists and engineers simultaneously developed the Long March rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and in 1984 launched China's first experimental communications satellite.
As part of China's twin drives toward market reforms and opening to the world, Beijing began offering launch services on the global market in 1990. "We provide launch services that are probably the cheapest in the world," says Zhou Yuanying, a manager at China's Great Wall Industry Corp.
Although a series of launch failures and accidents in 1996 caused China's insurance premiums to skyrocket and foreign partners to cancel contracts, Beijing's perfect launch record last year is restoring confidence. "China's share of the global launch market today is just under 10 percent, but we hope to double that figure over the next several years," says Great Wall official Yu Xianrong.
Among China's longer-range ambitions, says a government researcher, are the development of a reusable space vehicle similar to the American space shuttle, China's own space station, and eventual forays in the solar system. For the time being, he says, "China's exploration of outer space may depend on a stronger partnership with the US."
"The US Pathfinder mission to Mars and plan to land astronauts on Mars by the 2030s show it is now the undisputed leader in space, and China can only benefit from closer ties with the American space community," he adds.