In the countryside north of Beijing, horse carts clatter past farmers’ huts, and the air is thick with the grit of coal dust. But a huge stretch of industrial complexes is also rising here: China’s rapidly expanding Aerospace City. Once a third-world nation, China is transforming itself into a global player with high-tech space aspirations.
With a $1.5 billion annual budget—a tenth of NASA’s—the Chinese space program doesn’t have the cash to ignite a new space race. But after taikonaut Yang Liwei’s historic flight in October, China leaked details of its secretive program, and the ambitions are grand: Moon colonization and missions to Mars. Next year, two taikonauts will orbit Earth for a week in a Shenzhou (“Divine Vessel”) spacecraft, doing science experiments and testing life-support systems.
The newest von Braunian, China has found advantages in coming late to space: Cash-strapped Russia provided training, spacesuits and other expertise it developed through costly trial and error. But Chinese engineers
didn’t just absorb Russian tech. To build Shenzhou they expanded the Soyuz’s orbital module and added two solar panels. All four panels rotate (the Soyuz’s were fixed) to capture three times more energy—energy that could power the craft if it were left in orbit. Some observers speculate that China may someday link together several Shenzhous, Lego-like, to create a space station.
China’s more distant plans, however, seem far-fetched. Its lunar program calls for an orbiter by 2007, an unmanned Moon lander three years later, and sample collection by 2020—all for $170 million, about one-third the cost of a single shuttle launch. Most experts, however, don’t believe that exploration is the driving force behind China’s space program. In studying photos of Shenzhou 5, Swedish space analyst Sven Grahn spotted antennas that could be used to gather military intelligence.
China’s move into space fulfills an ancient dream. A 16th-century government official, Wan Hu, attempted to become the world’s first astronaut by strapping himself to a chair loaded with 47 rockets. Legend has it he vanished in a huge explosion. Now, 500 years later, China has resumed its quest for the stars.