When the United States was pushing the frontiers of space exploration to the moon and beyond, strategic communications links in Australia played a highly publicised role in the missions. But last week, when China launched Shenzhou VIII to dock with an orbiting target vehicle and pave the way for a manned space station, the part played by a Chinese tracking station in a quiet, rural part of Western Australia went almost unnoticed.
How times have changed. In the early days of space travel, at the height of the cold war, the notion of a Communist power having a base in Australia, a key US ally, to transmit and receive control data for spacecraft and satellites would have been seen as laughable. Decades later it still raises hackles among American politicians and defence advisers who suspect China's motives. Industry experts are divided about whether it will lead to pressure on Canberra from Washington, which is used to exclusive access to Australian tracking locations for itself and its allies. It is not all that unusual, however, since a European Space Agency tracking station in Australia has participated in previous Chinese missions. The new Chinese facility should be seen as a step towards peaceful international co-operation in space. Built by the Swedish Space Corporation and leased to China, it is the fifth outside the mainland and not far from stations operated by the ESA and Nasa.
Space has become a busy place since the US manned moon missions from 1969 to 1972. China, the European Union, Japan and India have all sent exploratory satellites into lunar orbit and China and the US both plan more manned missions. Not all space activity has been so benign, with the US and China each firing a missile to destroy their own satellites and a Nasa spacecraft firing a missile into the moon.
A space race is on, even if not comparable with the cold-war rivalry between America and the Soviet Union. Space has also been militarised, with spy satellites used not only to collect intelligence but to assist technically advanced military operations. A treaty banning nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction from space does not bar conventional weapons or military-related systems. It is encouraging to hear Nasa chief Charlie Bolden say the US and China could work together in space science and exploration and that this could help bridge the divide between the two while benefiting both.
Space does not belong to any one country. Its peaceful exploration should serve to bring countries together and advance science and technology for the betterment of mankind. Given the cost of missions that push man's last frontier out further, international co-operation in manned space exploration is a matter of common sense.