Project 921

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

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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.”

Chinese media also emphasize the project’s frugality. A report on the Web site of the communist newspaper People’s Daily said designers of the rocket assembly building at Jiuquan—whose 240-foot-high front doors weigh 350 tons—saved some 40 million yuan (about $5 million) by constructing it of concrete rather than the costlier steel used by Russia and the United States. Still, a few hundred million dollars spent on one building is equivalent to a full year’s budget for a Chinese province—money used for roads, schools, and health care in a country where hundreds of millions of people live in poverty.

Beijing cut some corners by buying Russian know-how, and is believed to have purchased a Soyuz capsule, docking system, and spacesuit to study. Clark, the British expert, says China might also buy, as another study aid, a life support system designed for Russia’s former Mir space station. The United States, on the other hand, has provided no technical help. Washington accuses Chinese companies of exporting rocket technology to Iran and Pakistan and worries that Beijing’s own rapidly improving missile arsenal could threaten Taiwan. So, until the U.S. Department of State says different, NASA will likely keep a cool distance. Lynn Cline, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for external relations and an experienced diplomat, says that Chinese officials occasionally ask her at international meetings what it would take to join the International Space Station project. But they’ve made no formal request, and cooperation remains limited. NASA is scheduled to carry a Chinese student experiment into orbit on the space shuttle this fall, and the two countries have discussed joint projects in Earth science and other non-controversial fields.

Even so, Chinese researchers have had access to U.S. expertise through technical conferences—more access, in fact, “than makes a lot of people in the West comfortable,” according to Charles Vick, chief of the Space Policy Division of the Federation of American Scientists. There has been more of a clamp-down since September 11, he says. “Government buildings such as NASA are now off-limits,” and U.S. conferences are imposing restrictions. “They’re being turned away and told, flatly, ‘No.’ ”

Chinese space officials are proud of their mostly homegrown program. “Our late start doesn’t necessarily mean we are developing slowly,” said capsule designer Su in his April newspaper interview. “We can learn from the experience of others and take shortcuts.” In fact, China’s first space hardware will be far more sophisticated than the capsules launched by the Soviets and Americans in the early 1960s. The 8.4-ton Shenzhou is slightly bigger than the Russian Soyuz vehicle on which it was modeled. Photos of Shenzhou 3 on the launch pad show improvements added by Chinese designers, including steering rockets, presumably to be used for docking with a space station that China also plans to launch sometime in the next decade.

News reports have said that the first piloted Shenzhou flight will carry two or three astronauts, whereas the Americans and Soviets started out with tiny, one-seat capsules. Still, China is proceeding cautiously, lacking a rival to race against and constrained by tight budgets and safety worries. The government has never disclosed a schedule for launches. “These designers are going to be very conservative about their approach because you’re dealing with human life here, and the prestige of a nation,” says Vick. Clark says that an executive of China’s commercial satellite launching company once told him that the test program “can’t afford a failure.”

Foreign analysts think that Chinese designers got a jarring reminder of the difficulties of human spaceflight after the second Shenzhou test, conducted in January 2001. They say something went wrong on reentry—possibly a partial failure of parachute equipment—and the capsule may have slammed down into the Inner Mongolian steppe. In contrast to the triumphant fanfare surrounding Shenzhou 3, not a single photograph of the capsule was released after the second test flight. “I’m not saying it was destroyed, but it was not something a human being would like to endure,” says Vick.

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