China Assesses the Value of Human Spaceflight

July 5, 2012 | 5:55 am
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

Chinese television spot of video taken by Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei posted by a Chinese blogger (English translation of subtitles added).

A crew of three Chinese astronauts recently completed a very successful 13 days in space. They docked the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab launched in September 2011, completed numerous medical and biological tests assessing living and working conditions aboard the lab, and safely returned to earth. Despite these accomplishments, the press coverage was somewhat less sensational than past missions, even with the attention-getting headlines surrounding Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut.

A recent editorial published in the People’s Daily even sounded defensive about the Chinese government’s expenditures on human spaceflight. During the just completed Shenzhou 9 mission China Manned Space Engineering Office spokesperson and vice director Wu Ping announced that China will have spent approximately 6 billion U.S. dollars on the human program by the end of the next mission.

The editorial begins by noting:

Some people might feel that that investment in the human spaceflight program stole resources and attention from the project of improving the people’s livelihood, that the energy used to climb into space could be better used solving problems here on the ground.

Critics of the US human spaceflight program expressed the same doubts about the US program. A high profile defense of the Shenzhou program in the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper just days after a major success in space could be a sign that the Chinese public, and some members of the Party itself, are beginning to question the value of China’s decades-long quest to build a space station.

The editorial’s defense starts with the contradiction of claiming space technology “demonstrates a country’s national defense capability” while in the same sentence quoting an unidentified report from UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that reportedly said “the use of space technology…is a shortcut to economic development because it can leap over the traditional technological development stages passed through by advanced nations.” The editorial combines hypernationalist rhetoric about space giving China a leg up in “a strategic competition between nations expanding from the surface to space” with dramatic claims of economic benefits such as “the research and development of more than 1000 new materials, 80% of which were completed under the quest for space technology.”

The strident political language of the editorial stands in contrast to some of the less scripted comments of the Chinese astronauts, who, like many astronauts before them, discuss the personal influence of seeing the earth from space, the recognition that we all inhabit a single planet and the need for greater international cooperation.

In many ways the progress of China’s space program seems to be creating echos of the social and political impacts the US space program generated in the 1960s and the 1970s. In both nations space-inspired images of national power and global connectedness continue to compete for attention in the public eye and investments from the public purse.