Mission Perfect

Published : Nov 18, 2005 00:00 IST

China completes its second manned space flight successfully and assures the world that it will use space technology only for peaceful purposes.

in Singapore

FROM "Mission Possible" to "Mission Perfect": China's astronomical leap across space within a span of five days in October has done the country proud, as its second manned space flight became the latest episode in the saga of scientific exploration.

It was only two years ago that China first flapped its wings as a frontline space-faring nation by successfully sending a man into space on a short orbital flight for about a day. With that, China joined a truly exclusive league of nations - its other members being Russia and the United States - that had independently explored outer space with a "human touch". Manned space flights and a number of other "exploits" by the U.S. and Russia in the second half of the 20th century indeed led to a noticeable degree of international cooperation in space exploration.

Now, staying on in the exclusive league as its new and independent member, China has spread its wings wider and perhaps also stabilised its status in the highest echelons of space exploration. The key to this success is the manner in which China's second manned space flight went off in a picture-perfect mode.

At 9 a.m. on October 12, two Chinese astronauts, Col. Fei Junlong and Col. Nie Haisheng, "lifted off" aboard the indigenous spacecraft Shenzhou-VI from the Space Centre at Jiuquan, a remote city in the Gobi desert. It was a spectacular blast-off, and the televised launch was in itself a measure of China's growing self-confidence in this frontier area of science and technology.

With the chief commander of China's manned space programme declaring, about 40 minutes after the lift-off, that the launch was a success, the authorities hailed the planned multi-day orbital flight as "Mission Possible".

Not surprisingly, the international community was curious to know more about the "game plans" of China, as it appeared to consolidate its position as Asia's only power with a manned space-flight programme. In anticipation of the inevitable questions about the political significance of this new mission, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that a "peaceful purpose" was the singular hallmark of the mandate of astronauts aboard Shenzhou-VI.

Those present at the launch site included China's first space hero, Yang Liwei, who had reported feeling a "tremor" shortly after his "lift-off" two years ago. In contrast, Fei and Nie, the new taikonauts (as Chinese astronauts are known), reported "feeling good" all the way. In an earlier era, the Soviet Union labelled its space-faring nationals as cosmonauts, to distinguish them from America's astronauts.

Fei and Nie lost no time to report to the ground-based tracking stations and those at sea that all systems aboard Shenzhou-VI, a more spacious craft than the one that Yang piloted two years ago, were functioning normally. With that, a new and televised success story began unfolding. Nie, who celebrated his 41st birthday in orbital flight around the earth, and Fei treated the Chinese audience to some breathtaking visuals. The two men took off their face shields and waved to their compatriots.

Other visuals showed the taikonauts reading flight manuals. Casting off their spacesuits inside the orbital capsule of Shenzhou-VI, Fei and Nie demonstrated how to wear the suits again. The two men performed a number of manoeuvres, both as demonstrative physical endeavours while in orbital flight and for the planned scientific experiments.

An attention-grab was the sequence of four "forward somersaults" that Fei performed, even as Nie monitored and took pictures. It took Fei about three minutes, as measured from the earth, to complete the exercise. He covered about 350 km during each somersault, given the speed of the spacecraft at about 7.9 km per second.

In contrast, China's trail-blazing taikonaut had spent all his time in orbit, less than a day, at his seat in the re-entry capsule.

The "somersaults" and other televised images of Fei and Nie at work in their orbital module gripped the imagination of the world's most populous and largest developing country. The ease and felicity with which the two men performed their tasks could not be missed. Another highlight was their while-in-orbit-conversation with President Hu Jintao.

ORBITING the earth every 90 minutes at an altitude of 340-350 km., the spacecraft journeyed 3.25 million kilometres before it re-entered the earth's atmosphere and touched down before dawn on October 17 at a distance of just 1 km from the pre-determined primary landing site in Inner Mongolia.

As Fei and Nie stepped out of the re-entry module, unaided and in good cheer, China's latest manned space voyage, the second in a series that has just begun, ended as a "complete success". Soon after the doctors at hand declared the taikonauts to be in "fine condition", Fei and Nie were greeted with bouquets and served chocolates and Chinese tea.

The taikonauts had spent 115 hours and 32 minutes in space, signalling that China's space odyssey with human beings as pilots had been well and truly launched. The other missions, now indicated as possibilities, include space walks and a lunar landing.

Shortly after the trouble-free touch-down by Shenzhou-VI, a fact magnified in importance by the American space shuttle Columbia disaster, a top Chinese space official, Liu Yu, said that "it was a mission perfectly fulfilled".

Wu Bangguo, China's highest-ranking legislator, hailed the Shenzhou-VI voyage as a "complete success" and a "milestone" in the country's early stages of space odyssey. Wu said: "The successful mission is of great significance for elevating China's prestige in the world, promoting China's economic, scientific, and national-defence capabilities and consolidating the national cohesiveness."

Amid the celebrations, People's Daily emphasised that "the boundless outer space is the common wealth of humanity" and that China's space-related experiments would be entirely for "peaceful purposes".

The Chinese leaders have, over time, emphasised that the critical mass of their space programmes would remain non-military in scope. China, like India and a few other countries, is in the forefront of the international campaign for keeping arms and ammunitions, including weapons of mass destruction, out of outer space. The non-militarisation of outer space is a policy that China has now pledged itself to anew in the new context of the Shenzhou-VI success.

Four salient aspects of China's space programme have been variously emphasised in the country's political discourse.

First, China's space endeavours are presented as entirely indigenous in scope. Self-reliance and innovation, rooted in "autonomous intellectual property rights", are the propellants that China cites. While Western diplomats and analysts tend to argue that China's current version of spacecraft is based on an earlier Soivet model, the Chinese authorities draw attention to their respect for "the intellectual property rights" of others.

Second, China sees its larger aerospace and outer-space industries as also its manned space-flight programme, which is about 11 years in the making, as critical aspects of the national economic endeavour. The space programme is envisioned as a frontier area of Beijing's overall economic reforms under the "socialist modernisation with Chinese characteristics". In particular, China's economic "opening up" is projected as an avenue that has made possible the spectacular progress on the space front. This aspect of China's political opinion is not easily amenable to challenge from the West, which "encourages" Beijing to open up and reform its economy.

Third, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) tends to take credit for the country's space successes. Noteworthy in this sub-text is the emphasis on the Deng Xiaoping Theory and the principle of "Three Represents" - both aspects of economic liberalisation - as the political launch-pad for China's space programmes. While Western critics of China often demand that it change its political ways, it will be churlish of them to deny the CPC any credit.

The fourth aspect of the CPC's political `take' on China's space programme is that it is meant for peaceful purposes. It is true that some Chinese commentators portray the success of manned space flights as the latest in a series of scientific feats that the country has performed over the past several decades. Listed in this category is the development of the atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb, besides the fashioning of earth-orbit satellites.

At a closer glance, this argument is not antithetical to China's assertions about its intention to keep its space programmes on a peaceful trajectory. The reason is not far to seek. China, like India, emphasises the principles of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and no-use against states without the atom bomb.

Significantly, insofar as outer space figures in China's thinking on "information warfare", David Shambaugh, a Western specialist on the Chinese military modernisation, has pointed out that some writings under the auspices of the People's Liberation Army had cited "the offensive use of ... space-based lasers", among other means, to "confuse and paralyse an enemy's communications systems on the ground, in the air, and at sea". Beyond such analytical views about China, there is very little or no policy-driven response from the United States and other Western powers to China's soaring status as a space-faring country and what that might mean in terms of the military equations among the major powers.

At the macro-level of international politics, a new post-modern theory is that the space-faring powers will be able to dominate global affairs in the future in much the same proactive manner as the sea-faring countries were able to do in an earlier era in world history.

It is not just China's proven technological successes in the extra-terrestrial domain that would be relevant to this theory, but also the robust space programmes of India and a few other countries. Importantly, in the overall global political situation, the "Chinese assessment", as a commentator, Yong Deng, has pointed out, "sees the United States as a hegemon on the offensive for power aggrandisement". Assessments such as these were first made in 2001, but they remain valid to this day, as seen from a Chinese perspective.

A fashionable view in the West is that the Soviet Union collapsed, in spite of its military prowess and space-related successes, because the old Kremlin failed to put the national economy on an even keel. Viewed in this perspective, China tends to focus as much attention on the national economy as on other power derivatives such military modernisation and space exploration. It, therefore, remains to be seen whether the U.S. will see China as an emerging space-faring competitor and respond to the "challenge" accordingly.

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