Manned mission adds more success to China's ambitious space program

There are clear parallels between modern China's persistent efforts to extend its reach into space and the advances that characterized the Red Army's Long March eight decades ago.

The analogy is timely in the context of the launch this month of China's latest, and longest, space mission, a couple of days before celebration of the 80th anniversary on October 21 of the end in 1936 of the revolutionary Long March.

The phrases used by China's President Xi Jinping in hailing the military victory work equally as well in describing the nation's space program which started with a first satellite launch in 1970.

Terms like "a great expedition" and a "monument" to China's rejuvenation are interchangeable in depicting each of the journeys which have their genesis in vastly different eras of the nation's development.

President Xi said the march, a military maneuver undertaken by the Red Army from 1934 to 1936, was "epic" and "a great feat in human history" in his address to a commemoration of the anniversary in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Each in their own way, in their own epoch, represents a distinctive and emblematic stage in the development of today's China.

Its space program made further advances when the Long March-2F carrier rocket bearing the Shenzhou-XI spacecraft was launched from northwest China's Gobi Desert on October 17. The spacecraft docked in orbit 393km above Earth with the country's newest space lab, Tiangong-2, on October 19.

The science research to be conducted in the lab is being undertaken by two astronauts, Mission Commander Jing Haipeng, 50, and Chen Dong, 37, who have a busy batch of assignments to complete during their 30-day stay in the outer limits, twice as long as earlier missions.

Jing Haipeng, who celebrated his birthday in Tiangong-2 (meaning "heavenly vessel") has spent more hours in space than any other Chinese astronaut and is undertaking his third mission. He has been a member of China's elite astronaut brigade for 18 years and has written how he values "working and living together and chasing dreams" with his peers.

This mission's workload is expected to be the heaviest undertaken by Chinese astronauts as scientists have planned for them more than 40 experiments in medicine, physics, biology, and engineering. There will be trials involving 14 scientific payloads and they will also test rendezvous and docking technology.

The payloads include POLAR, an international multi-institution study of gamma ray bursts, and a cold atomic clock which will lose one second every billion years.

As the astronauts get down to work, the initial excitement and celebration back home ebbs and flows.

In keeping with the exploratory and scientific merits of the space mission, the astronauts are engaging with the broader Chinese media spectrum to include interested observers at home in the interstellar experience.

Netizens can get as close a virtual reality experience as possible by sending questions to Jing and Chen who will answer via a Xinhua mobile app. Chen admitted to one Hangzhou student's query that he hadn't seen any aliens yet. And the news agency collected over 10,000 50th birthday wishes for Jing in the form of videos, photos and texts from children around the world.

China has ramped up its space activity since 1999, launching 11 Shenzhou spacecraft. These have progressed in the intervening years from unmanned journeys to manned missions, the first of the latter in 2003. The original space lab Tiangong-1 was used in a technology-proving role and docked with Shenzhou spaceship numbers eight to 10.

Concurrent with the latest launch, China's Lunar Exploration Project also announced it was prepared to launch the Chang'e-5 lunar probe in 2017 to collect moon rock samples for scientific research.

The current mission is China's sixth manned space excursion and the first since 2013. It is another step in determined and persistent progress toward the goal of launching China's own space station, construction of which is planned to start in 2018 in time for commissioning into service in 2022.

Success in space is seen by China as reflecting the surging development of the nation's science and technology research sectors. Science notwithstanding, commercialization of the space industry is not viewed as unreasonable a prospect in China as it might have seemed 10 years ago.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, a State-owned overseer of the space program, is cognizant of the potential of tapping into development trends in the space industry.

Industry players are being encouraged by government to develop commercial satellites, launch services and space tourism. A subsidiary of China Aerospace has established a company to provide launch services for domestic and overseas clients and is aiming to complete 50 launches a year.
By 2020, the value of commercial space activities in China is expected to be around 30 billion yuan a year.

With China ranking third behind the United States and Russia as independent developers of advanced space technology and manned flights, its long march into the celestial heavens continues at a pace.



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