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China’s Manned Space Program: an Opportunity for Cooperation

by Jonathan Coopersmith on Oct 14, 2003

Jonathan Coopersmith

What happens when the world’s largest Communist country launches its first cosmonaut into orbit around the earth? If past experiences are any guide, fear and excitement will dominate reactions in the United States. In April 1961, the Soviet Union made Yuri Gagarin the world’s first person in space. That feat sparked waves of panic about American military and technological vulnerability and led president John F. Kennedy to commit the United States to sending men to the moon.

The People’s Republic of China has announced that it will launch its first manned spaceship within days. The United States can respond to the Shenzhou (“Heavenly Vessel”) 5 competitively (as we did before) or cooperatively (which also would not be unprecedented). We should choose to be cooperative. The ensuing American-Chinese cooperation could well determine the course of space exploration for the next generation.

The Shenzhou 5 launch will make China, after the United States and Russia, the third country to send people into space. The Chinese government obviously intends to invest heavily in space exploration and exploitation, because launching people is considerably more expensive and challenging than sending satellites. Other countries have considered developing their own human spaceship but have decided the great cost was too much for the rewards.

Domestic and international political and propaganda considerations drive the Chinese government, just as they did and still do the American and Russian human space programs. The pride Chinese citizens will no doubt feel will strengthen the Communist government domestically. Although based on Soviet Soyuz technology, the Shenzhou 5 represents a considerable technological accomplishment.

The Chinese government also hopes for substantial international political benefits from this demonstration of technological capability. A successful launch may make the Taiwanese people feel closer to China, increasing pressure on that island’s government to unite with mainland China. If Japan and its neighbors think the technological momentum has slipped from Japan to China, they may align themselves closer politically to China.

If the American reaction to Soviet accomplishments is any guide, fear about Chinese accomplishments will increase pressure to spend more on the American manned space program. But this analogy is too simplistic. Yuri Gagarin entered earth orbit during the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in the “Space Race” to demonstrate the superiority of their political and economic systems.

The strategic relationship with China today is clearly different from our past relationship with the former Soviet Union. The United States has undisputed economic, technological and military advantages over China. But China, like Russia, is clearly trying to catch up, and a manned spacecraft is a very visible statement of technological prowess. The Chinese government, unlike its Soviet predecessor, has prominently publicized its intentions to orbit “taikonauts,” launch a small space station in time for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and establish a lunar base.

The Shenzhou 5 will add a geopolitical element absent since the end of the Cold War to space policy. Because American technology has flowed to the Chinese space program, if only from unclassified literature, some in the United States will undoubtedly use the first Chinese astronaut as a symbol of an increasing Chinese technological threat to America. Certainly, no president politically can afford to stop flying American astronauts and “give space to the Communists.”

Instead of engaging in a narrowly focused race to achieve a specific goal, such as a manned lunar outpost, the American government should invite China to become a partner on the International Space Station. Both countries will benefit. An offer of cooperation will be politically important to China and will constitute an American acknowledgment of China’s technological accomplishments.

For NASA’s space shuttle and space station, the Chinese launch could not come at a better time. The appearance of Chinese astronauts will increase public interest in American astronauts. More important, an additional space partner will provide more financial and technical support for the troubled space station. The Bush administration, restricted financially by the growing budget deficits it has created, will correctly argue that cooperating with China is less expensive than competing with it.

Cooperation is not without its pitfalls. Coordinating efforts is both challenging and expensive. But the potential benefits outweigh these costs. Politically, the existing superpower and the emerging great power working together on the frontier of space is an appealing image. At least as important, cooperation in space may pave the way for stronger technical ties and minimize the growing political and economic friction on Earth.

Jonathan Coopersmith is associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A & M University.