Color China Photo/AP
Shenzhou 7

China Makes a Statement with Spacewalk Endeavor

September 26, 2008 05:59 PM
by Josh Katz
Chinese astronauts are expected to make their first spacewalk Saturday, another indication of the country’s continuing rise as a major global player in many arenas.

China Launches Spacewalk Mission

China may soon join the United States and Russia as the only countries to have conducted spacewalks. On Thursday night, three taikonauts—or Chinese astronauts—set off into space in the Shenzou VII spacecraft. The country has launched two other manned space missions in the past five years, but this would be the first spacewalk.

The spacewalk is scheduled to take place on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Beijing time and should last about 30 minutes. The event will be broadcast live on Chinese television.

For the mission, the taikonauts are also expected to perform tests and launch a “small satellite monitoring station,” according to The New York Times.

China’s state-run news media describes the $4.4 million space suit worn by one of the taikonauts as the “the most complicated, advanced and expensive suit in the world.”

However, the media in China released the news of the space launch a bit prematurely. Xinhua, the national news agency, claimed Thursday that the mission had been launched, “hours before astronauts even left the launch pad,” according to the Associated Press. The article, described as a “technical error” by a Web site staffer, actually includes quotes from the astronauts. “The piece vividly described the rocket in flight, complete with a sharply detailed dialogue between the three astronauts,” the AP reported on Thursday, in an article appearing in the International Herald Tribune.

Russia and the United States had their first spacewalks in 1965, the New York Times writes.

Like the recent Beijing Olympics, the space mission is an indication of China’s the ascendance as a major power on the international stage. 

The Chinese space program is quickly advancing, and Michael D. Griffin, the administrator of NASA, has warned that China could reach the moon before the United States returns there by 2020. The goal of the Chinese space program is to establish a space station.

According to the BBC, China “has sent a robotic spacecraft, Chang’e, to the Moon and there are plans to land a robotic rover on the lunar surface in 2010.”

Nevertheless, analysts agree that China’s space progression is nowhere near that of the United States. Dr. Roger Launius, senior curator for space history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, said, “There is a space race underway, but it is an Asian space race. It is between China, Japan, maybe Korea, certainly India. They are competing with each other for stature.”

The news of China’s space mission follows the FBI’s arrest of Shu Quan-Sheng, 68, a U.S. citizen born in China, the Associated Press reported. He has “been charged with illegally selling rocket technology to China and offering bribes to Chinese officials.” He is accused of selling technology to China used in the creation of hydrogen-propelled rockets, in violation of the federal Arms Control Act.

Opinion & Analysis: Is China’s space launch good for the country?

Zhang Hong of The Guardian says there is no question that China’s technological feats on the space front are impressive, and they signal China’s rise as a world power. But he argues that now is the time for China to devote its money to more practical concerns; for example, there were complaints after the earthquake that satellites were not displaying clear pictures of the affected spots. He argues that the space program, costing trillions of dollars, contributed to the downfall of the Soviet Union, and right now, China is better off helping the Chinese people in ways that directly affect them.

But Martin J Young of the Asia Times asserts that there is still plenty to be excited about, particularly with the real prospect that China could be landing on the moon in the near future: “These latest Asian space efforts may seem a little retro to those that have already ‘been there and done that’, but nearly 40 years after the first successful lunar Apollo mission the prospect of another moon landing is exciting for those that have not witnessed such a feat.”

The Wall Street Journal’s China Journal presents the opinions of some Internet users in China on the space program. “Best wishes to the great Motherland! And it will definitely boost people’s national pride!” one “netizen” from Sichuan province said. Another person had a different opinion on the matter: “To Chinese, the launch of Shenzhou 7 is a big event. But to the whole world, the space walk has been realized over 40 years ago and it can’t be compare with the Wall Street financial crisis.”

Related Topic: A space arms race?

The U.S. government is currently working on technology that detects lasers coming from the ground that are meant to disrupt American spy satellites in space. The Bush administration claimed that China had blinded American spy satellites using lasers in 2006 and in January 2007, China declared that it had shot down its own defunct “weather” satellite.

Such actions have prompted fears of a potential space arms race. Scientific American described the repercussions of such a race occurring: “The nations of Earth must soon decide whether it is possible to sustain the predominantly peaceful human space exploration that has already lasted half a century. The likely alternative would be unacceptable to all.”

In May 2008, China rejected comments made by Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Horne of the U.S. Strategic Command that it was “aggressively” boosting its military capabilities in space. Qin Gang, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry responded to Horne’s remarks: “China consistently upholds the peaceful use of space, and opposes any form of weaponization of space or an arms race in space.”

Also in May, Japan enacted a law permitting the military use of space, ending a 40-year prohibition on such actions. The decision came in response to fears over the military capabilities of China and North Korea.

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