Ambitious programme zooms in on final frontier
IN ABOUT A YEAR, China's Shenzhou VI spacecraft will blast off from a launch pad at the Jiuquan space launch centre in Gansu province.
The flight, which will this time carry two astronauts and last five days, will come about two years after Shenzhou V took Yang Liwei on China's first piloted space mission.
The Shenzhou mission will mark another step in China's space programme. But the country's ambition goes far beyond that.
The first stage of the three-phase lunar programme has among its goals the exploration of materials that can solve the country's long-term energy shortage problem.
According to the blueprint outlined by Huang Chunping , chief commander of rocketry for the Shenzhou project, the country plans to launch its own space station over the next decade or so. At some point - when funding permits - it will also realise an ambitious goal to explore the moon.
According to the Beijing Daily, the first phase of the programme will see the launch of a satellite before the end of 2007 to examine the physical properties of the moon.
In the second phase targeted for 2012, an unmanned rocket will blast off to land on the lunar surface. This will be succeeded by a third phase, when China will launch a space shuttle capable of collecting samples from the moon.
Luan Enjie , former director of the China National Space Administration, said China would work on its own to launch the lunar satellite but would seek international co-operation during phases two and three. The whole project is due to be completed by 2020.
Financially, the space programme is no small burden on the country. In the 11-year run-up to the launch of Shenzhou V, the critical period that marked China's economic take-off, the country poured in 18 billion yuan to prepare for the landmark space tour. And it took Colonel Yang aloft for just 21 hours and 23 minutes.
The first phase of the nation's lunar programme is expected to cost 1.4 billion yuan, almost the same amount needed to pay for 2km of underground railway in the capital. As a result of financial concerns, officials have been holding back on the commitment of sending an astronaut to the moon.
Wang Yongzhi , the godfather of the mission that successfully completed China's first manned flight last year, said lunar orbiting plans would go ahead but China would not send an astronaut to the moon.
He said plans to put a man on the moon had been shelved for financial reasons.
This was despite the confidence expressed by Mr Huang, the Shenzhou commander, in China's capacity to achieve the task.
Officials are keen to put across the message of the country's determination to commit human and financial resources to speed up manned aerospace development.
Mr Huang said most of the investment would be used to build facilities on the ground, such as factories and bases, and the infrastructure would become fixed assets to be harnessed for the national economy.
'The money really used in space is actually not much,' he said.
Sun Jiadong , designer-in-chief of China's moon exploration programme, sees strong economic grounds for the project.
'There are plenty of mineral and energy resources on the moon that could be exploited and used,' Mr Sun was quoted by mainland media as saying.
'They complement the limited resources on the Earth and could greatly influence sustainable growth.'
Another leading mainland space expert, Ouyang Ziyuan , agreed. 'Helium-3, which is internationally regarded as a very efficient, clean, safe and cheap energy resource for nuclear fusion, is abundant on the moon,' Mr Ouyang said.
'Ten tonnes of helium-3 could satisfy the nation's energy needs for a year, while 100 tonnes of helium-3 could support the globe's total energy needs for the same period.
'But resources of helium-3 on Earth are limited and proven reserves amount to only 500kg, while it's estimated that the outer layer of the moon has more than one million tonnes of helium-3 - enough to support humanity for 10,000 years.'
Mr Ouyang claimed access to the moon's rich helium-3 resources was the goal of all countries' lunar exploration ambitions.
Mr Luan suggested each US dollar invested in America's moon-landing project would yield $5 in revenue. 'A gram of gold is worth about US$11, while a gram of helium-3 is worth $400,' he said.
He denied that China was simply repeating a feat the United States and the former Soviet Union achieved decades ago.
'The US looked for five kinds of mineral resources in its moon exploration programme but we will examine 14,' Mr Luan said.
The economic potentials aside, China has many reasons to pursue aerospace development.
The Shenzhou V flight last year has put the country alongside the US and the former Soviet Union as the only countries to send humans into orbit.
The mission came 42 years after Soviet astronaut Yury Gagarin safely returned to the Earth in the Orient-I spacecraft. But still, China's successful launch of the manned spacecraft is the epitome of the nation's space technology development and augurs well for the country's international standing.
In 1961, Gagarin's successful mission toppled the US from its position as the world's premier superpower and the country immediately concentrated its resources on its moon-landing project. It was only in 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, that the US regained its superiority.
China is now looking for Shenzhou VI astronauts. A nationwide search for a candidate to become China's first female astronaut - a goal to be realised by 2010 - will start next year, with the doors open to Hong Kong and Macau residents.