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Project 921

Russia and the United States have held the inside tracks in the space race. In the stretch, here comes China.

Shenzhou 3 also was delayed on the pad. Vick has seen Western satellite images showing the rocket on the launch pad in August 2001, before it was removed for what he believes were modifications to both the booster and the capsule. The modifications suggest that the Chinese may be struggling to master what engineers refer to as systems integration, or getting all the elements of a space program—from rockets to computers to the four tracking ships stationed at listening posts around the globe—working together smoothly.

Assuming Chinese astronauts make it into orbit sometime in the next couple of years, what then? In their rare public comments, Chinese researchers have talked about wanting to mine the moon and explore Mars—aspirations that the state press stresses don’t have the backing of the government. But China clearly wants to go beyond just rocketing astronauts into orbit and bringing them home again. Clark points out that the early Shenzhou tests have already demonstrated that the capsules can reach orbits ideal for the planned space station. They pass over their launch base roughly every two days, which would offer frequent opportunities to send up supplies or switch crews. A second launch pad is under construction at Jiuquan, and that would allow two rockets to be launched within a short interval, carrying capsules to rendezvous with each other in orbit, dock with the station, or perhaps be joined in orbit in preparation for a lunar mission.

Outside observers aren’t certain how far China’s ambitions for a moon program have advanced—whether it’s just a vague notion or a more detailed plan with a timetable. But the idea has a certain logic. “The Russians can’t go to the moon [for lack of funds]; the Americans don’t have the political will to go to the moon,” Clark says. “Really, the Chinese are the only people who could realistically be going to the moon in the next 20 years.”

Visitors to the Expo 2000 technology fair in Hannover, Germany, in October 2000 were intrigued by the centerpiece of the Chinese pavilion, a diorama showing astronaut mannequins driving a rover across the lunar surface, having just planted the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Coming just 11 months after Shenzhou 1 completed its flawless first flight, the scene didn’t look all that farfetched.

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