April 23, 2004
The long-anticipated first Chinese manned space flight occurred with the Shenzhou-5 launch last October, and now the question is -- what next? Will China pursue its own orbits in space, or join with the International Space Station? How will China target, acquire, and apply space and rocket technology? What are the main purposes of their significant space expenditures? China's pride in its recent accomplishments has resulted in a remarkable openness about their program, including official policy papers, in-depth interviews with officials and workers, and some tantalizing clues about future projects. It's now clear that aside from learning from other national programs, and on a case-by-case basis buying specific hardware items, the Chinese program is NOT just a 'copy' of foreign hardware. Their step-by-step exploratory plans involve both unmanned lunar missions and the development of a small man-tended 'space lab'. Applications satellites are being developed across a wide spectrum of programs. Lastly, the Beijing government intends to perform top-down management of narrowly-focused technology development for future applications, a very risky strategy. The Chinese activities themselves can contribute to other national space programs. They have developed and publicized innovative engineering and management approaches to common problems. They have shown that there is no 'cheap' way toward safe human space flight. And they have reminded others that space accomplishments are more than mere show-off status symbols, they are propellant for national intellectual and commercial vigor.
James Oberg is a widely-published author on the past, present, and future of space flight and a leading world specialist on Russian and Chinese aerospace topics. He is currently the NBC News "space consultant." His most recent book is 'Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the US/Russian Space Alliance,' which discusses the impact of the Russian partnership on NASA safety standards and the development of the International Space Station. His silver medal winning article, "Why The Mars Probe Went Off Course," describes the root cause of the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter (inadequate safety standards rather than merely a confusion of English and metric units). Mr. Oberg had a 22-year career as a space engineer at Mission Control in Houston, specializing in NASA space shuttle operations for orbital rendezvous, writing "A History of Orbital Rendezvous." Mr. Oberg is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate (bachelors plus two MS degrees) of Ohio Wesleyan University.