This week China to launch its most ambitious space mission program, Shenzhou 7, which is a sign of rising confidence as Beijing cements its status as a space power and potential future competitor to the United States.
On Thursday, the Shenzhou 7 mission will be launched to carry a full complement of three astronauts, sometimes called "taikonauts" from the Chinese word for outer space, one of whom will perform China's first space walk, or EVA for "extra-vehicular activity." This is China's third manned mission. The purpose of this ambitious program is to assist China to master docking techniques that needed for the construction of a space station, likely to be achieved initially by joining one Shenzhou orbiter to another.
After successfully hosting the Olympics, China's communist leaders face few of the public doubts or budgetary pressures constraining such missions elsewhere. That has allowed them to fuse political will and scientific gusto in a step-by-step process that could one day see Chinese taikonauts landing on the moon.
The space mission launches from the Jiuquan launch site in northwestern China. The lead taikonaut, Zhai Zhigang, is expected to carry out the 40-minute spacewalk that China will broadcast live. According to an expert on the Chinese space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, Joan Johnson-Freese, the Shenzhou 7 program is an incremental but important step forward.
Chinese space missions are methodically moving forward in a "very deliberate, graduated" manner. China is accumulating the building blocks of a comprehensive ambitious mission program, demonstrating "caution but confidence" as it gains on the United States and other space powers.
Next aims are believed to include an unmanned lunar landing around 2012, an ambitious mission program to return samples in 2015, and possibly a manned lunar mission by 2017, three years ahead of the United States target date for returning to the moon.
First, Chinese researchers and scientists need to put the final touches on the new generation Long March 5 rocket capable of launching 25-ton components for a space station or future lunar missions. Once that ambitious mission has completed, the next progress will come rapidly.
All along, China has relied heavily on homegrown technology, partly out of necessity. China has trouble obtaining such technology abroad due to U.S. and European bans and is not a participant in the International Space Station.
However, from the beginning, China has focused squarely on high-payoff areas where it can match or exceed the achievements of others. That garners new capabilities while maximizing the political impact, something observers sometimes call "techno-nationalism." The first manned Shenzhou mission in 2003 saw China join the United States and former Soviet Union as the only nations capable of launching taikonauts into space.
The China’s Shenzhou ships closely resemble Russia's three-module Soyuz capsule, but have been completely enlarged and re-engineered. China's team of 14 taikonauts are trained at Chinese facilities. According to veteran chief designer Qi Faren, China's systems have designed carefully for safety and reliability. Qi, 75, said in an interview published in Monday's Beijing News, "What we're proud of is that, although we're not the best, it's our own and its very Chinese."
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