Many think that China has only recently begun taking steps towards involvement in space; in truth, they took their first unmanned space presence in 1970. Their manned space program is far more recent, but it is still a logical outgrowth of political, economic, and social policy.
Mystery Behind China's Goals
Many questions and misconceptions exist surrounding China’s space program; indeed some accepted “facts," such as a hard-and-fast date for a taikonaut, a Chinese astronaut, to set foot on the Moon, may not be facts at all. (China’s official stance is that a moon mission is on the horizon, but without a hard-and-fast timetable or even a target year.) What, exactly, is the Chinese space effort doing, and what are they trying to accomplish?
History of China's Space Program
First, a little history- Much like the evolution of the United States and Soviet space programs, China’s first steps towards space were taken in 1960, as part of a military effort to achieve ballistic missile capability, and much of their initial progress in that field is (debatably) owed to the assistance of the USSR. The Long March series of ballistic missiles were the basis for their rockets, and the first launch of a Chinese satellite into space occurred in 1970. As one might expect with such a start, the Chinese space program is inextricably linked with the Chinese military. Indeed, a 2005 article claims that all China’s Shenzhou launches to that point executed military missions. Of course, a large proportion of NASA’s shuttle launches prior to Challenger involved Department of Defense missions, as well, and a dual-purpose military/civilian space program may be one of the surest ways to maintain at least a cursory level of funding.
Chinese Spacecraft Technology
While some of their hardware may appear to be copies of Russian hardware, China maintains that all components are of Chinese design and manufacture. The Shenzhou space vehicle, in particular, resembles the Russian Soyuz design, but that may simply represent a way to reduce some of the technical risk associated with a manned space program. Further, it is highly unlikely that it would have taken the Chinese this long to reverse-engineer Russian technology. Further, a 1995 paper by then- Lieutenant Colonel J. Barry Patterson makes it clear that China has also established enough well-positioned launch complexes to cover geosynchronous, low-Earth, and polar orbits, not a strategy one takes towards a short-term presence in space. When you consider the fact that they had the foresight to make their boosters compatible with American upper stages, it would appear that they might be vying for a share of the commercial space launch market, as well.
Future Development of the Program
Looking at the degree of development in China (with respect to both space and unrelated development disciplines), it is apparent that they are positioning themselves for a long-term effort to modernize their society to equal anything the East or West has to offer; an article about China’s space program that appeared in the Fall ’02 issue of the Harvard Asia Pacific Review makes the point that pursuing the stars helps to develop their technological base, scientific and engineering expertise, and commercial and military capability, while also stoking patriotism. This much seems abundantly clear.
Future articles will elaborate on the details of China's space program.
Long March photo courtesy of Aaxander
Shenzhou diagram courtesy of BWFrank