Can China really afford its space ambitions?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2003, 12:00am

China is no different from many other countries when it comes to the way it views its space programme. Here as elsewhere, the programme is wrapped up in ideas of scientific progress, military advantage and national pride. And here as elsewhere, the stated goals are grand and the sums involved are large. China expects to launch a shuttle carrying astronauts into space this autumn and it plans to put astronauts on the moon within two decades, all part of a programme costing several billion US dollars per year. Only two other countries, the former Soviet Union and the United States, have succeeded in launching humans into space, but India and Japan are among the Asian countries vying with China to do the same. China's reasons for wanting to conquer space are understandable, but it must also be considered whether pursuing these ambitions makes for the best use of the country's resources under the current circumstances.

China's space programme, in its present form, bucks one significant trend in space exploration. Its emphasis on transporting humans comes at a time when many are calling for the majority of resources to be devoted to unmanned flights and launching robots into space. The latter can gather information, conduct experiments and add to humanity's understanding of the world we live in - without undue risk to human life. Indeed, the most exciting discoveries now being made are coming from such projects. In terms of timing, the country's push into the stratosphere comes some 40 years after the cold-war-inspired space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. With a few notable exceptions, the space-race mentality has been replaced by widespread international co-operation on space exploration. Even the two main rivals whose antipathy and mutual suspicion launched the first era of aerospace development, the Americans and the Russians, are now co-operating in this area. The International Space Station, which has support from both nations, is the most prominent example of such collaboration.

Just as importantly, China is joining the race at a time when pressing domestic problems are making demands on the treasury. Money and scientific talent diverted towards the space programme could mean less will be left for urgent projects such as improving the national health-care system, improving education and raising the living standards of those who live in rural areas.

It is hard to discount the allure that space programmes hold for many governments. India and Japan also see being able to launch satellites - and eventually, humans - into space as matters of prestige. But at a time when there are so many important items on the national agenda, we have to wonder if, at the moment, this is a project China can really afford.