The East Is Redder

WHEN China had launched its first satellite, the Dongfanghong (East is Red) or DFH-1, at a time when it was relatively isolated internationally, its ties with the Soviet Union ruptured and involved in an aggressive ideological tussle with the USA, the satellite broadcast the anthem “The East is Red” back to earth, a proud and loud signal that Communist China too was a player in the big league. Last week, when Yang Liwei became the first Chinese man sent into space, China had made a stunning demonstration of its growing scientific and technological capabilities at the forefront of space exploration, and had made another statement to the world: that modern China is emerging as a world leader. A music video called “Flying” was released on the occasion proclaiming the new spirit in China, expressing, according to the Peoples Daily, “the romantic emotions and spirit of exploration of the Chinese people.”

The launch of China’s first yuhangyuan (space traveller) or taikonaut, a term coined by a Singapore-based Chinese publication, came 42 years after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space aboard Vostok 1 in April 1961. Less than a month later the USA, spurred on to outdo its Communist rival, had sent Alan Shepherd on a sub-orbital flight lasting less than an hour. From that point of view, Yang Liwei’s 14 orbits around the earth in over a day, while a first for China and signalling its great advance in space technology, is hardly a milestone in the history of manned space flight. But the excitement in China, the congratulatory messages pouring in from other countries including India, and the eagerness with which the event is being analysed around the world show that the event is significant indeed, and in many ways.


Other countries including India and several European countries have had men and women in space, but in craft launched by the US. China this month became only the third nation after the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the US to send humans into space and bring them back safely.

President Hu Jintao, who witnessed the launch along with a galaxy of government and party leaders, praised the launch as a proclamation of “the glory of our great motherland” and described the flight as an “historic step of the Chinese people in the advance of climbing over the peak of the world’s science and technology.” This patriotic tone had also been struck before the launch by Yang when he declared that he would “gain honour for the People’s Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation”. The launch date too, just a few days after the culmination of the weeklong celebrations of the National Day on October 1, emphasised the patriotic sentiment and prestige value of the first Chinese manned space flight.

During the annual Science and Technology Week in Beijing beginning on September 23, the highlight of the public science education activities was the exhibition on space exploration with interactive displays of various systems such as loading of rocket propellant; launch countdown, rocket ignition and liftoff. Displays included the Shenzhou-3 (SZ-3) descent module, which would bring Yang back to earth and a cutaway model of the DFH-2 communications satellite, which was also being launched along with Yang. Like many countries including the former Soviet Union and India, China too is nervous about space launches and worried about adverse reaction to any possible failures, and normally avoids pre-launch publicity. In this light, the pre-mission campaign was unusual and underlined the importance, which the leadership attached to the mission, as also the confidence with which the mission itself was being approached. But then, the Shenzhou-5 (SZ-5) mission was not typical by any means with the entire world’s space community watching it keenly. It had even been decided to telecast the launch live, but this decision was reversed at the last moment with nerves finally scoring over self-assurance and only a few selected Chinese journalists being allowed to witness the launch. As it turned out, the launch and the rest of the mission proceeded flawlessly, a tribute to the careful planning and immaculate execution by the space authorities, and Chinese TV channels soon started beaming live pictures.

There are of course many, including experts and leaders of space programmes in most countries, including the US, who are critical of manned space flights and question their usefulness especially in relation to cost. Opponents of this view point to other benefits of human space exploration including its scientific and technological and spin-offs, its potential for defence and, last but not least, the enormous dividends in arousing public interest, national sentiment and support for expensive space programmes whose benefits may not be immediately visible to a sceptical public. While the benefits from remote sensing in exploration of mineral deposits and ground-water, weather forecasting, communications and distance education are indisputable, one may indeed discount some of the much-touted spin-offs such as Teflon and Velcro as being highly expensive ways to develop non-stick frying pans and alternatives to zip-fasteners. But it is not easy to discount the value of national prestige, pride and a boost to the national psyche generated by such achievements. It was, after all, for this reason that in 1961 the then US president John F Kennedy announced the mission to put a man on the moon in 10 years in order to boost morale which was at a low ebb in the face of rapid Soviet advances in space and in numerous other fields. The US manned space programme has continued to be a source of national pride and an advertisement of US prowess, and few would dispute the enormous fillip to US prestige brought about by the first moon landing whatever be its merits.

China’s manned space programme, with Yang Liwei’s flight being surely only the first of several to follow, may also perhaps bring similar dividends, even though many would raise questions as to whether these would compare favourably against about US$ 2 billion (Rs 9000 crore) estimated to have been spent for this maiden manned flight.

In any case, let us take a closer look at China’s manned space programme and its significance in other areas.


China’s manned space programme is part of the once highly secret Mission 921, which had been initiated in 1973 but had to be kept in abeyance due to high costs. A programme codenamed 921-1 was revived in 1993 when China’s economic strength was growing steadily and its modernisation programme proceeding apace and, equally importantly, at a time when post-Soviet cash-strapped Russia was willing to sell some space technologies at reasonable prices.

In the early ’50s, China’s space endeavour had benefited from Soviet assistance, which, however, came to a halt in the mid-’60s. China’s space programmes focused on rocket propulsion and satellite systems through the ’70s and ’80s mostly through indigenous efforts but supplemented by a few western-trained space scientists. Although international co-operation with the EU, Brazil and others did help to some extent, the major breakthrough in external assistance came in 1995 when China signed a deal with RKK Energia (or Missile Space Corporation Energia), Russia’s chief space station contractor, to provide training to Chinese yuhangyuans and technical information about the Russian Soyuz spacecraft’s capsule, life support systems, docking systems, space suits and, later, in the development of docking, flight control and life support systems.

While some Western commentators have made much of such external assistance, and the fact that China’s Shenzhou has borrowed extensively from the Russian Soyuz, the reality is that China has very intelligently combined considerable indigenous efforts with technologies obtained from elsewhere, mostly from Russia but also from the Ukraine, so as to minimise costs, accelerate the programme and avoid having to “reinvent the wheel”.

The Shenzhou looks very similar to the Soyuz craft, both systems including three modules: a propulsion module, a pressurized re-entry module and an orbital module in the front. The Shenzhou also has similar launch systems and especially landing systems with a jettisoned heat shield, single parachute and rockets for soft descent on land.

Yet the SZ-5 includes significant improvements upon the Russian Soyuz design. The re-entry capsule is about 15 per cent larger and can hold 3-4 taikonauts. The solar panels are larger and more efficient, generating about 3 times the energy of the Soyuz vessel. Shenzhou’s orbital module, unlike the Soyuz’s, has its own propulsion, solar power and controls so that the Chinese craft can continue flying as a mini-space station even after the re-entry capsule is brought back to Earth. China has adopted the Soviet/Russian APAS-89 docking system (which enables spacecraft to “mate” with the orbiter as in the Space Station), which, in fact, is used both in the International Space Station and in NASA’s space shuttles. In SZ-5, the orbital module is expected to stay in space for about 6 months conducting many scientific experiments and one cannot rule out a subsequent unmanned Chinese launch seeking to dock with the orbiter before this period as a rehearsal for a later manned docking.


It must be noted that although China’s space programme is the most advanced in Asia, and is viewed as equivalent to European programmes, China has not been asked to join the 16-nation US-led International Space Station even though nations with smaller programmes have been asked to participate. With SZ-5, China has not only scored an important point in moving ahead of rivals such as the European Union, Japan and India who have not accomplished manned space flight, it is also quite evidently preparing for its own space station and related activities.

Apart from the unstated great-power rivalry, the US’s stated reason for its hesitation to include China in co-operative space efforts is due to the military dimensions of China’s space programme. While it is virtually impossible to draw a dividing line between military and civilian aspects of any space programme, the history of China’s space programme has made the distinction even more blurred than in most countries.

China’s space programme is organised under the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (COSTIND) and the Shenzhou programme itself is overseen by the PLA’s General Armament Department. The Changzheng or Long March 2F rocket which launched the SZ-5 is visually indistinguishable from China’s long-distance intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). SZ-5 itself has fair reconnaissance capabilities having on board cameras with resolution of 1.6 metres, a 1-metre resolution being considered necessary for military purposes. However, military goals cannot be the goal of the Shenzhou programme since manned space flights are an enormously expensive way of achieving military goals, which can be reached at considerably lower cost through unmanned missions.

China has far more to gain from advancing its capabilities in remote sensing, environmental monitoring, space materials, life sciences, astronomy and physics. There are many who argue that while China has undoubted capabilities in rocketry, it is somewhat weaker in satellite design and construction technologies, remote sensing etc partly due to the emphasis hitherto on missile applications and commercial launch capability. Successful development of the Shenzhou programme would give China an increased capacity to carry out scientific experiments and develop useful technologies with potentially lucrative results and geo-political dividends.

Cooperation between the European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been in effect since 1993 especially in connection with earth-mapping satellites. Another significant EU-China collaboration is in the so-called Double Star project launched in 2001 to study the effects of the sun on the earth’s environment. 2 satellites are due to be launched by Chinese Long March 2C rockets in 2003 and 2004, with 10 of the instruments being provided by the EU and 8 by China. Even more significantly, China and the ESA are also negotiating a Chinese role in Galileo, Europe’s planned satellite navigation system which will rival the US Global Positioning System or GPS.

China’s manned space programme may indeed have been undertaken keeping in mind its dividends for national pride and international prestige rather than any immediate or major gains in science and technology. But it would be foolish to brush aside China’s manned space flight as being merely for prestige value because China’s highly ambitious space programme could yet come to rival many others at the present rate. With Russia in serious economic trouble, its annual space budget has dropped to a mere US$ 300 million (Rs 1350 crore) which is now being devoted almost exclusively to maintaining the Space Station especially since the grounding of the American space shuttles. The EU currently spends around US$3 billion (Rs 13,500 crore) with China following close behind at about US$ 2.5 billion (Rs 11,250 crore). This is no doubt quite far behind the USA’s annual space budget of US$ 15 billion (Rs 67,500 crore). But China is clearly knocking at the door.