China's 1st Space Walk Mission a Step Toward the Moon?

Kevin Holden Platt in Beijing
for National Geographic News
September 24, 2008
China is counting down toward Friday's launch of its most challenging space mission yet, which is set to include the country's first space walk.

The mission furthers an ambitious space program that plans to build a base on the moon—in cooperation with NASA or not.

The flight of the Shenzhou VII rocket—China's third manned mission—is scheduled to take off not quite a year after Beijing deployed its first spacecraft to map the lunar surface.

"We intend to send astronauts to the moon and ultimately to build a lunar outpost," said Zhang Qingwei, who was until recently a leader of China's manned space program.

Zhang now heads a new corporation that aims to become the Chinese equivalent of Boeing or Airbus.

Zhang said China would be willing to participate in the international lunar outpost designed by NASA. Astronauts are scheduled to begin building that settlement in 2020.

Alternatively, China could assemble its own moon base, he said.

With or Without You

Scientists and scholars at NASA and within the American space community say a debate is being waged over how closely to link up with China on missions to the moon or other celestial destinations.

China currently cooperates with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a global-navigation satellite system and with the Russian Federal Space Agency on everything from astronaut training to a joint robotic mission to Mars, set for 2009.

Zhang, a long-time advocate for closer space ties with the ESA and NASA, acknowledged there are "many political and social differences still dividing us that would have to be overcome" before wider cooperation with the United States could occur.

On his first official trip to China in 2006, NASA head Mike Griffin said the U.S. agency is "still unable to cooperate with [China's] military-based space program" and that his visit focused on the civilian side of the program.

"If China and the United States were to cooperate in the arena of manned space flight, that would be well down the road," Griffin said.

Gregory Kulacki, an expert on China's space industry who works for the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said China's shift away from military control of space endeavors could lead to greater cooperation with the U.S. in future joint missions.

That transition may already be underway: A launch site under construction on the island of Hainan will be operated by the China National Space Administration. The country's three other launch centers are run by the People's Liberation Army.

Still, in a report this year, Pentagon scholars noted that China had successfully tested an anti-satellite missile against one of its own weather satellites, "demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-Earth orbit."

China views its space capabilities as "bolstering national prestige and, like nuclear weapons, demonstrating the attributes of a world power," according to the report.

"Reach Into the Cosmos"

Jim Burke helped design the earliest U.S. moon missions as project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

He said attempts to portray China as a potential rival military and space superpower are misguided, and that the Cold War space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a peaceful competition that spurred innovation.

It was "the heyday of lunar rocketry—a brief, splendid episode in humanity's reach into the cosmos," said Burke, now a scholar at the International Space University in France.

John Pike, founder of the space-watching think tank, said the future of American-Chinese cooperation in space remains under a cloud.

"Apprehensions about espionage from both sides are going to be hard to overcome," he said.

Next Stop: Mars

While it remains unclear whether the United States and China will race to the moon as partners or competitors, the two countries have similar interests there.

"The moon, with deposits of helium-3, could hold one of the keys to solving Earth's energy problems," according to Chinese space official Zhang.

Helium-3 is a lightweight form of helium gas that is extremely valuable as a potential source of nuclear-fusion power. NASA scientists also have their eyes on the possible energy source.

Moon missions also are seen as a technological testing ground that would provide useful experience for humans to explore the rest of the solar system.

Peng Jing is an aerospace engineer at the China Academy of Space Technology in Beijing.

Peng said that while China's successful space program is building support for a lunar touchdown, the moon is only an interim target.

"After human missions to the moon," he said, "China will consider human flights to Mars."

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