Nation earns its place in space travel history

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 12:00am

The impressive launch of the Shenzhou V spaceship yesterday marks an historic achievement for China. It is the realisation of a long-held ambition, one which dates back almost half a century to the beginning of the country's space programme. China has finally joined the elite band of nations that have put a man into orbit.

It has also breathed new life into international interest in manned space flight and given impetus to the great human endeavour of exploration beyond the physical limits of our world.

Only when astronaut Yang Liwei has returned safely to Earth, in a landing scheduled for the grasslands of Inner Mongolia this morning, will it be possible to declare the maiden voyage a success. Space exploration, by its nature, is a highly risky business. We join the rest of the nation in wishing for the safe conclusion to the mission.

By the time he returns, Lieutenant-Colonel Yang, a PLA fighter pilot from the northeastern province of Liaoning, should have orbited the globe 14 times and reached a height of up to 350km above the Earth's surface in a flight lasting 23 hours.

If all goes as planned, the celebrations will begin in earnest today. The implications for China of a successful flight are enormous. It would prompt a great surge in national pride and provide further evidence of the country's growing role on the world stage. It is another prestigious achievement, following Beijing's winning of the right to host the 2008 Olympics and the country's accession to the World Trade Organisation. But the flight will also provide new opportunities to further technological development and scientific experimentation. In commercial terms, it will raise the status of China's already substantial satellite industry.


It was heartening to see positive news of the launch from around the world yesterday. China is not the only nation gripped by this space adventure: the excitement of space travel cuts across national borders and rivalries. With the Russian programme hit by lack of funding and the United States still recovering from the Columbia space shuttle tragedy earlier this year, the launch of Shenzhou V has fuelled the world's fascination with the final frontier.

At this stage, China is playing catch-up with Russia and the US. It joins the exclusive manned-flight club more than four decades after the other two members. In scientific circles, there is debate about whether unmanned space probes are not more effective than manned flights in exploring the realms of space. But space-station and space-shuttle experiments are valuable, too, and that is where manned flights assert their importance. There is also debate about whether it is worthwhile pumping billions into such a programme at a time when funds are needed for social security, health care and education. The priorities of the nation will continue to be questioned and discussed.

But these issues of debate should not detract today from recognition of the scale of China's achievement or from the great sense of accomplishment the nation is entitled to feel. China's space programme was set in motion by Mao Zedong in 1956. The first rocket was launched in 1960 and 11 years later China became the fifth nation to send a satellite into space. But hopes of a manned launch did not materialise and in the 1980s Deng Xiaoping opted for a more pragmatic, commercial approach, focusing on satellites. Despite occasional setbacks, the satellite programme has been successful. China has launched at least 70 satellites in the past decade. Jiang Zemin put the manned space flight project back on the agenda in 1992. Four unmanned Shenzhou flights have since taken place. Fittingly, Mr Jiang was present at the launch.


But beyond national prestige, there are wide benefits to be gained from the project. While this initial flight will focus on checking out the performance of the spacecraft, in future weather forecasting, predicting natural disasters and gaining information that could help protect the environment are all possible. One Japanese official expressed cautious interest this week in co-operating with China on such initiatives. Developing technology for industry and boosting telecommunications are also on the agenda.

In space programmes, military implications are always present. China has insisted its ambitions in space are entirely peaceful and do not involve weaponry.

In China, the military has control of the manned space programme, and the rocket technology used to launch Shenzhou V can also propel nuclear missiles. But manned space flight, of itself, is not a military application. It is to be hoped that China is able to persuade other nations, in particular the US, to accept its assurances so that full co-operation can follow. China has earned the right to join the international space station project, already supported by 16 nations.

But such discussions must now wait until we are sure that Shenzhou V has landed safely. For the moment, we should be content with the awe-inspiring launch that has earned this country its place in space travel history. It may be a small step for mankind, but it is a giant leap for China.