The Chinese recently revealed an ambitious five-year-plan for space exploration. China plans to build space labs and launch manned vessels into space. The Chinese say their long-term goal is to have a space station and land an astronaut on the Moon.
CNN reports that Jiao Weixin, professor at the school of Earth and Space Sciences at Beijing University, said: "With economic progress, also comes the need for scientific development and exploration. By investing in space exploration, China wants to contribute and be a major player in the world on more than one level."
The Chinese, CNN reports, are unveiling plans for expansion of their space program at a time the Unites States is scaling down funding of its space program.
China has been making great progress in its space program since 2003. After a Chinese astronaut successfully completed a spacewalk in 2008, the country became the only one, after Russia and the United States, to put a man in space. China carried out successful automated docking of a robot spacecraft Shenzhou-8, in 2011. China plans other space docking missions for 2012 out of which it hopes one will be manned.
According to Hu Wenrui, writing in China Daily, the country is proceeding with its Manned Space Engineering Program over the next few years by expanding on existing infrastructure and building a pressurized module for astronauts to live and work in. China also plans to build a fleet of vehicles to shuttle astronauts and cargo between the space module and ground base, including build a space laboratory.
China Daily says the goal of the Chinese space program is to build a space station with a manned microgravity laboratory by the end of the 2020s. Wenrui explains that China's microgravity lab will afford it a "quantum leap in microgravity research fields that can help to make breakthroughs in areas such as fluid physics, combustion, materials science, biology and ecology, protein crystal growth, cell culture, biomedicine, human support system, and more."
CNN reports that China's accelerated space program is widely viewed with suspicion and many are afraid that China may spark off a military space race. The U.S. and other countries were alarmed when, in 2007, China shot down one of its own dead satellites.
CNN reports that Clay Moltz, professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, said: "...the Obama administration has made overtures at the military-to-military level. The ball is now in China's court to respond. How it responds may say a lot about its true intentions in space."
But Moltz ignores the fact that the Chinese are still smarting from what they consider snobbery when the United States opposed their request to participate in the program involving the space station called Freedom, renamed International Space Station (ISS) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies were invited to join the international space effort, but the United States opposed China's request to join.
The New York Times reports that unlike the U.S., the Chinese do not have a separate military and civilian space program. Their entire space program is run by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) with civilian institutions such as universities and laboratories working under the military-led effort.
In the white paper detailing the five-year space exploration plan, the Chinese emphasized that China's space program was not a military threat or challenge to other countries. The paper said: “China always adheres to the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes weaponization or any arms race in outer space.”
Despite China's impressive achievement in space technology, it still has a long way to go in catching up with the United States. But Jiao says: "It may be impressive to see what China has done in the past decade."