07 Dec China’s bold return to Space
It’s been 50 years since Chairman Mao Zedong said China couldn’t put a potato in space but today the country has a bold new programme that includes putting a robot on the Moon and a manned landing by 2020
The novelty of China’s obsession with space becomes palpably clear as our bus makes its final approach to the launch site. Our tour guides walk down the aisle and hand out yellow towels and bottles of water.
“This is simply in case the launch goes wrong and the rocket explodes on take-off,” one explains. “Just wet the towel and put it over your nose and your mouth to protect yourself from the fumes.”
Will this be enough? In 1995, a rocket took off from Xichang in western China, went sideways like a hastily balanced firework and blasted straight into a hillside.
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A giant poster promoting China’s new foray to Space
It killed six people and injured 50. A year later, at least 57 died at this very site when another rocket carrying a satellite did much the same.
This one vaulted nearby hills but landed on a mountain village instead. As an investigation into both mishaps later discovered, neither were due to a mi scalculation of fuel-to-weight ratios or telemetry intolerances; the rockets just hadn’t been welded together properly.
I hang on to the towel like a comfort blanket as our convoy of coaches makes its final ascent along roads lined with police and soldiers. It stops on a hilltop overlooking the launch site. Tension builds as the light fades. Blast-off time draws closer.
People are jostling for the best positions, scrambling underneath police cordons and up the hillside, as a large screen is erected in front of the crowd. This will relay live footage of the launch as it is broadcast across China using cameras placed just 800 metres from the launch pad. But the screen, unable to pick up a signal, fails to work.
Wealthy “space watchers” from across China have paid 65 each to witness their most spectacular space launch yet, a Moon probe that will spend a year circling, photographing and analysing the lunar surface.
If successful, it will be the first stage in China’s bold programme, which includes putting a robot on the Moon in 2012 and a manned landing by 2020.
My photographer and I are the only Westerners at the tightly guarded viewing platform. Because the Chinese fear that the ’secrets’ of their space technology will be stolen, foreigners are banned. But we turned up at an official travel agency in the nearby city of Xichang and pleaded to be allowed to see the historic event; after a flurry of phone calls we were eventually allowed to join a Chinese tour party.
Thus we keep a suitably low profile as grey clouds gather above the Long March rocket in the minutes before the launch. There’s no countdown just an audible gasp from the crowd and a thunderous rumbling underfoot as yellow flames shoot out. It is 6.04pm.
The rocket appears to leave the ground inch by inch. The rumbling grows to a roar as it gathers speed and heads up into the bank of grey cloud. The rocket disappears but the roar grows louder and, for a few deafening and disorientating seconds, it feels as if the rocket really is going to explode and rain down upon us. I reach instinctively inside my bag for my yellow towel.
Then, just as it sounds as if the clouds are ready to split apart above the dumbstruck crowd, the rocket suddenly appears in a clearing overhead as a fiercely burning ember, leaving an S-shaped swirl of smoke as it discards the first of its fuel tanks. Realising simultaneously that the launch has been a success and the danger of being killed by falling rocket debris has passed, the crowd erupts into a display of genuine patriotic euphoria and flag-waving.
“China is great, China is great,” whoops insurance executive Zhang Danian, 30, who has travelled hundreds of miles with a group of friends to see the launch. He leaps around manically hugging anyone in sight for five minutes before calming down to tell me:
“This proves that China is as good as anyone now. This satellite is very high-technology and I am so proud that our country is capable of doing something like this. Everyone in the world is watching us this evening, and everyone can see that we’re no longer a poor country.”
What is the motivation for today’s spectacle? Partly, it is economic. China certainly hopes the Moon might help slake its thirst for energy and for more resources.
But of course, it’s also about prestige; China is battling with Japan and India to be the first Asian nation to put a man on the Moon Japan’s first lunar probe entered the Moon’s orbit last month, and they too plan a manned mission to the Moon in 2020. India, meanwhile, plans to launch a lunar probe next April.
More disquieting is the wider implication that this is no less a mammoth and menacing push by China to prove itself as a superpower. As the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach, China is desperate to show it is a big player on the international stage.
At the same time, the country is undergoing a rapid military build-up; the US claims its annual spending on defence is now 40 billion, more than three times the official figure coming out of Beijing, and three times that of Russia. With this latest flexing of muscles comes the fear that it will accelerate an arms race in space.
This is not mere speculation. In January, at a very different launch event thousands of miles away, a medium-range ballistic missile was sent by the Chinese to blow up one of its own weather satellites 500 miles above the Earth’s surface.
There was no need dozens of decommissioned satellites harmlessly orbit the Earth; indeed, knocking it out so violently sent dangerous debris into space that will remain in orbit for decades and could damage other satellites. What it did do, however, was send out a clear signal that China could use its technology in space warfare, to destroy US and other satellites used for navigation and surveillance. This marks the first major escalation in the space weapons race in 20 years.
The morning after the 90 million Moon probe thundered into the sky, shaking thick clumps of mud from the wall of his home just a mile from the launchpad, peasant farmer Wang Shangli is back working the sun-baked fields from which his family eke a meagre living.
Here in the village of Quianjin, farmers earn three pounds a week selling rice, fruit and vegetables and none is rich enough to afford a tractor. The 65 each of the ’space tourists’ paid to visit the launch site is the equivalent of three months’ wages for Wang and his family.
The ruling Communist party has identified the rich-poor divide as the country’s greatest single challenge. Nowhere in China is this contrast more brutally apparent than in the cluster of primitive mountain villages surrounding the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Sichuan province.
As we were driven here yesterday, grubby-faced urchins stared from the roadside in bemusement. Noticing how the wealthy tourists from cities across China were gaping in surprise at the poverty flashing past the windows, the tour guide had piped up:
“Don’t pay attention to the simple homes. They might look poor but they are among the wealthiest peasants in China. Their produce sells for very high prices and they live a good life.”
And yet Wang’s face also shines with excitement at the country’s most ambitious space launch yet. “We are on our way to the Moon and I am very proud to be Chinese.”
With that, he returns to his ox and plough.
The road blocks are now gone and the soldiers and police have melted away. As we visit the surrounding villages, what we see is hardly a picture of a space-age nation.
In Shabao, a village of 2,000 people just three miles from the launch site, a sick child lies apparently unconscious in the arms of his mother in the street. The boy is hooked up to a makeshift intravenous drip outside a pharmacy in the village centre as people walk past without so much as a glance.
A report by the World Bank states that more than 300 million people in rural China have no access to safe water and nearly 800 million have seen no improvement in sanitation and hygiene in recent years.
Earlier this year, the British Govern-ment jointly with the World Bank gave a combined 25 million in loans to improve water supplies and hygiene in Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces.
The amount spent by China on its current space programme is roughly equal to how much China has accepted from the World Bank for rural water and sanitation projects in its impoverished rural provinces over the past two decades.
We meet farmers toiling in the fields with the help of teenage children they could no longer afford to keep in school. As part of the so-far token efforts to ease rural poverty, farming families have been given an annual subsidy, but in this part of western China it amounts in most cases to 2 a year per family while a new health insurance scheme costs 7 per person.
We find scenes of squalid poverty amid the naive patriotism, which raises the troubling question why is China spending all this money going to the Moon when so many of its people can barely afford to feed themselves?
It is 50 years since China’s revolutionary leader Chairman Mao Zedong declared drily that China couldn’t even put a potato into space. The country has seemingly had an inferiority complex ever since the US and Russian successes. It now plans to be the first country to put a man back on the Moon a full half-century after Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind on July 21, 1969.
China launched its first satellite into orbit in 1970 but social turmoil derailed its ambitions in space and it wasn’t until 1985 that it began a commercial satellite launch programme. Its biggest step before the launch of the Moon probe came in 2003 when Yang Liwei orbited Earth in the Shenzhou V, becoming China’s first man in space.
The Chang’e 1 named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the Moon will scan the Moon’s surface to examine its chemical make-up and thickness.
Scientists will be on the lookout for evidence of helium-3, a rare isotope which some think could provide a source of clean energy. There has been talk for years of mining helium-3 and returning it to Earth in space cargo ships, but until now nobody has been audacious enough to actually try it.
The fact that China is doing what the US and the former Soviet Union did half a century ago does not faze any of the Beijing officials in charge of the Chang’e 1 project.
“A lunar programme represents the overall strength of a nation and its capacity in science and technology,” says Professor Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Science. “This expedition will increase national pride and China’s political influence in the world.” It comes as part of a 15-year Medium-to-Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology, announced in 2006, to advance China’s goal of being an “innovation-oriented society.”
The launch came at the end of the Communist party’s 17th Congress, when the leadership felt buoyant. In the same month, China could also boast that, thanks to the surging stock market, it was home to five of the world’s ten biggest companies by market value, among them PetroChina, mainland China’s biggest producer of oil.
However, China’s sudden passion to examine its boundaries in space travel has a more sinister element as well, as the January satellite-busting operation proved. China at first refused to confirm or deny the firing of a missile.
But then Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao defended it as a test with scientific purposes, insisting that China has ‘consistently advocated the peaceful development of outer space and it opposes the arming of space and military competition in space.
But it also showed China’s desire to be one of the big boys. Up until then, the US and Russia had been the only nations to shoot down objects in space. It was widely criticised as a provocative demonstration of China’s growing military clout, and it unnerved neighbours Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
It alarmed many in Washington, the UK and Australia, too. US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: “The US believes China’s development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of co-operation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.” The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, ratified by the major powers, bans nuclear warheads in space, but does not mention other weapons. So the fear remains. And this comes at a time when there is already growing international concern about China’s increasing military power, its modernisation of its nuclear weapons and navy, its double-digit military spending increases nearly every year since the early Nineties, and its increasing military presence around the world, not least in Africa.
In a report in May on China’s military strength, the Pentagon said the country’s ‘expanding military capabilities’ were “a major factor” in altering the military balance in East Asia, and that the country had “the greatest potential to compete militarily” with America.
The very real fear now is that if there were to be a stand-off over Taiwan, the Chinese could take out US spy satellites that watch over it. Then the Chinese would be in a far stronger position to impose their will on Taiwan.
The intentions of the Chinese here remain clear, but as President Hu Jintao warned at this year’s Congress: “We will never allow anyone to separate Taiwan from the motherland in any name or by any means.” India reacted to the January incident with alarm, calling on all countries to redouble efforts to guarantee the peaceful use of space. It is a sign that China is now very much part of the international space race and could as easily turn its technology to malevolent purposes.
The Pentagon has already reported that China now has the technology to blind American satellites using ground-based lasers, preventing them from taking photographs as they orbit over China.
Before it shot down the weather satellite, China joined the chorus of demands calling on the US in particular to sign a treaty pledging never to use space for anything other than peaceful means. President George W Bush has many times ruled out the notion of a global treaty, and in August he asserted again the right of the United States to “freedom of action in space.”
The failure to secure any such agreement from the US may, some analysts believe, have persuaded China to change its tactics and seek to cancel out US missile defence systems with space-based components.
The concerns of Li Hongying were more down to earth as she sold sweet potatoes and walnuts to the crowds arriving to watch the space launch near Xichang:
“On that one day I made 300 yuan (19.50). That is a month’s wages for me. I wish they would have a satellite launch every day.” Zhao Guoguang, 40, a local government official from Xichang, laughs at the suggestion that China should not be spending so much money on a Moon probe when poverty is so widespread.
“China is doing this because China has the money to do it it is easy to understand. If you are rich, you save up and buy a car. If you are poor, you save up and buy a bicycle. It is the same for China. We are a rich country now, not like before, so we can afford to do this amazing thing.” In defence of the cost, Professor Ziyuan says: “Our total budget [for the launch] is only 800,000. Government officials spend billions of yuan of public money on wining and dining each year.”
It is an irony not lost on farmer Lang Jili, 70, who lives in a home with mud walls less than a mile from the launch site. He says with a smile, “Even if they didn’t spend all this money going to the Moon, there is no way they would ever give it to the farmers, is there?”