Russia and the United States have held the inside tracks in the space race. In the stretch, here comes China.
- By Joe McDonald
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
(Page 3 of 5)
The astronauts practice emergency launch pad escapes at the launch site in the Gobi Desert, according to the state newspaper Labor News. The base is near the remote northwest town of Jiuquan, a former oasis stop for camel trains on the ancient Silk Road. (China has two other launch sites, which so far have been used only for launching satellites—at Taiyuan in the central province of Shanxi and at Xichang in the southwest province of Sichuan.)
The program has a distinctly Chinese identity. The astronauts will conduct inflight experiments in traditional herbal medicine, according to capsule designer Su Shuangning, who gave a rare interview last April to the People’s Liberation Army Daily. The space cuisine will likewise have a native flavor. A research lab in Shanghai has developed a 21-meal menu, according to China Space News, whose reporter saw dozens of space-bound dishes at the Beijing training center—light on fish, meat, and bread and heavy on curried rice, shellfish, vegetables, and other dishes prepared by adding hot water. The diet will also include dried fruit. And “since Chinese love to drink tea, besides orange juice, there is iced tea and green tea,” the newspaper said.
Because the identities of the astronauts and engineers are largely unknown, the most visible figure in China’s nascent space program has been President Jiang Zemin. The 76-year-old leader, who also heads the Chinese communist party, is expected to start giving up his formal posts over the next two years, and is using the space program to polish his image as a leader who modernized China. The former engineer and Shanghai mayor, a surprise pick in 1989 to head the communist party after that year’s political upheaval, prides himself on having helped to spread the Internet and other modern technology to the masses. He was on hand at Jiuquan on March 25 for the third Shenzhou launch. State television devoted half of its 30-minute nationwide evening news that day to the event—focusing not on the flight itself but on Jiang. Dressed in a green military-style uniform, he was shown congratulating control room technicians and speaking against a backdrop of fireworks bursting over the Tiananmen Gate in central Beijing.
Under Jiang, the government has largely cast off leftist ideology in promoting economic reform. Instead, it appeals to Chinese cultural pride by advancing projects such as Beijing’s campaign to host the 2008 Olympics. When that bid proved successful, millions of people poured into the streets of the capital in spontaneous nighttime celebration, waving flags, singing the national anthem, and cheering themselves hoarse. The space program fits this nationalistic role perfectly. In contrast to revolution-era names—Long March rockets, East Is Red satellites—the more poetic Shenzhou——“Sacred Vessel”—harkens back to the glory days of classical China.
One day last July, I set out looking for the public face of China’s new space program. But I ended up disappointed, caught between Beijing’s desire to brag about its achievements and the military-inspired secrecy that the communist system regards as a necessary part of its armor. At the Aerospace Museum, former director He and the current director, Han Guoju, were gracious and welcoming. Their exhibits, housed in two concrete-floor halls the size of small aircraft hangars, include a Chinese fighter jet and models of airplanes made by the country’s civilian industry. Ultralight aircraft hang from the high ceiling. In one corner is a head-high scale model of a Shenzhou capsule and photos of Long March rockets blasting off. But that’s all. “Our museum is very simple,” said Han, who recommended that I visit the bigger China Aerospace Museum, on the southwest outskirts of Beijing.
I got directions from a receptionist over the phone, but when I arrived, I found that the museum is inside the walled compound of the state-run Launch Vehicle Research Institute. A polite young guard with an AK-47 rifle told me the public isn’t allowed through the front gate. I called back the woman in the museum office, who belatedly explained why I’d never heard of the museum—it was baomi—secret. Entry by a foreigner requires permission from the office of the institute director. I waited an hour but was finally told that I’d been refused.
As I left, I saw the clash between China’s high-tech hopes and low-tech reality: On the street outside of the building, farmers drove horse-drawn wagons filled with vegetables to street markets.
The cost for this huge but still-developing nation to create a space program from scratch—the state press says it now involves some 3,000 government agencies and companies—is a mystery. Foreign estimates range into the billions of dollars. But one Western diplomat in Beijing who follows the program says the total could be less than $1 billion, or half of what NASA paid to build a single space shuttle orbiter. “Wages for engineers and other experts are very low,” says the diplomat, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “And materials and techniques that the Soviets and Americans had to spend a lot of money to develop in the 1950s and ’60s are common knowledge.”