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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The New York Times October 13, 2003

China Ready for Human Spaceflight

By William J. Broad

When Moscow put the first humans into space 42 years ago, Soviet officials raised a veil of secrecy. They made sure the genius behind the feat was a nonperson, awarding his medals in private. They lied about the spaceport's location. And they said the heroic astronaut had landed his spacecraft, when in fact he had ejected from his capsule high in the atmosphere and parachuted back to earth.

Now, as China prepares to become the third nation to fire a person into space, perhaps as soon as Wednesday morning Beijing time, the differences are telling.

Secrecy remains. But the Chinese have also opened sophisticated Web sites that promote their space hardware. Government agencies hand out glossy images of rockets and capsules. And Western experts have learned enough information about the Chinese technology to spend endless hours analyzing the nuances of the impending flight.

Space analysts say the openness shows that Chinese astronaut gear is basically an adaptation of Russian rocket and capsule designs, though much improved. "It's extremely surprising how much China has revealed," said Phillip S. Clark, a top expert on the Chinese space program. "This is full throttle compared to what they used to do."

When John E. Pike, a space analyst in Washington, wanted to pinpoint the Chinese launching site, he said, he turned to an official Chinese rocket manual, which put the Jiuquan Space Center in the Gansu Province of northwestern China, on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

"It's far less secretive than the Soviet space program," Mr. Pike said. Why? Mainly, he said, because of Beijing's drive to sell space technologies. "They have to talk to people in order to sell their products."

Analysts say the new openness, in addition to revealing the Russian aid, shows that the Chinese have worked hard to make their rockets more reliable - a major requirement for human flight - after suffering a series of disasters in unpiloted flights roughly a decade ago.

The improvements came from toil as well as American companies eager to use Chinese rockets for launching satellites, the analysts said. Ultimately, the United States, worried that such aid could improve nuclear-armed missiles, fined the companies heavily for helping Beijing.

Chinese officials deny that their space program greatly depends on foreigners and tend to laugh off the American accusations.

Whatever the truth, experts agree, the bottom line is that China is now entering the astronaut game with some notable high cards as well as the world's fastest-growing economy. The flight's timing is linked to celebrations of the Communist revolution.

In Washington, the politics of an unblemished voyage are expected to be fairly significant because the space shuttles are now grounded, creating an impression that some aspects of space leadership are passing to another power.

"It's not going to restart the space race," said James E. Oberg, a NASA veteran who wrote about the Chinese astronaut program in this month's Scientific American. "But it adds some instability and excitement to an arena that's been fairly boring."

If the launching is successful, people in parts of the United States should be able to see the Chinese craft moving across a dark night sky like a star adrift. Four unpiloted test flights flew with an inclination to the Equator of 42 to 43 degrees, meaning that they traveled as far north as that latitude.

New York City is at a north latitude of 41 degrees, so the craft in theory could fly within its view if it follows the path of its predecessors.

Whether it does depends on sky conditions, the orbit's inclination and its duration. The longer the voyage, the greater the chance it will pass within visual range of particular ground sites.

"Even a short flight should cross the United States six or seven times," said Charles P. Vick, an expert on the Chinese space program at GlobalSecurity.org, a research group based in Alexandria, Va.

Space analysts said Beijing's effort to send humans into orbit began in earnest about a decade ago and was at first quite secretive, code-named Project 921. The cold war was just over and the impoverished Russians were cutting deals. So the Chinese, experts said, bought part of a Soyuz, a standard Russian spacecraft for transporting people.

It was no man-in-a-can, a description apt for early American models. Back to front, the Soyuz has a propulsion unit, a pressurized capsule for up to three people during assent and descent, and a forward module where astronauts can work. Even today, Russia uses the Soyuz routinely for ferrying astronauts to space outposts, and the Chinese obviously had the same objective in mind.

"They didn't buy a whole Soyuz," said Mr. Clark, who writes space books and articles from Britain. "It was a descent module stripped of innards, so mostly a shell." The Chinese also bought a life-support system, he added, and a pressurized suit for wearing inside the spacecraft.

Experts said the Chinese carefully studied and adapted Russian gear to their own needs. "They had to build and test and prove everything themselves," said Mr. Oberg, who lives near Houston. "So most of the similarities are superficial. The one exception is the suit. It copies the Russian design down to the stitching pattern."

The Chinese named their spacecraft Shenzhou or Divine Vessel. Weighing more than 8 tons and almost 30 feet long, it was slightly larger and heavier than the Soyuz. The main difference is the forward unit, which on the Shenzhou has solar panels and can remain in orbit after the piloted module descends back to Earth.

Even as China readied a home for astronauts, it worked hard to design a new type of Long March rocket to hurl Shenzhou into orbit. Beijing also found itself forced to confront the ticklish, potentially deadly issue of rocket dependability.

Chinese rockets failed in 1991, 1992, 1995, and twice in 1996, according to Chinese figures. It was a real crisis, given Beijing's interest in winning orders for satellite launchings and its ambitions for Chinese citizens in space.

American companies, including giants like Hughes, the world's largest maker of communications satellites, helped iron out the problems. This March, Boeing, which acquired Hughes Space and Communications, agreed to pay a record $32 million in fines to settle federal charges that the two companies had unlawfully transferred rocket and satellite data to China. The penalty was said to be the largest ever for an arms export case.

Bruce Berkowitz, a space analyst in Washington, minimized the episode in a paper for the Hoover Institution, saying the American companies made no effort to hide their assistance because they believed they were doing no wrong. He added that the technology at issue was trivial.

"The Chinese," he said, "probably gave away more technological secrets than they acquired from the U.S. companies." Other Western experts disagreed, saying the disclosures were quite significant.

No matter what, Beijing's work improved. Experts said the Chinese had suffered no major launching failures since the two of 1996.

A few months after the rocket dust settled, in October 1996, the Chinese formally announced plans to launch people into orbit. Late that year, two Chinese astronauts began training in Russia, and in turn trained a dozen others back in China.

In June 1999, photographs began to circulate publicly of a new Long March rocket for astronauts, Mr. Clark said. Known as the 2F, it stood 19 stories high. Its top bore a small escape tower whose rockets could fire and pull the astronauts to safety if the main vehicle failed in the countdown or early stages of the flight.

Mr. Vick of GlobalSecurity.org examined images of the Jiuquan Space Center and found that the rocket's assembly building was some 32 stories high. From there, the rocket rolls to a nearby launching pad.

Shenzhou first flew in 1999, with follow-up flights in 2001, 2002 and early 2003. The first mission lasted 21 hours, experts said, and the latter ones about 7 days. The flights became increasingly complex, with changes in orbit and practice moves for docking with other spacecraft.

A mystery surrounding the first piloted flight, known as Shenzhou 5, is how many astronauts will fly: one, two or three. The mission's length is to be about a day. Experts said the descent module, in theory, can be refurbished and fired back into space.

Analysts expect the Chinese to chart an increasingly bold course, first practicing linking up Shenzhou modules and ships together in orbit, then building a space outpost and using the craft to ferry astronauts.

Within a decade, Mr. Oberg said, China's space efforts may eclipse those of the Russia and the European Space Agency. If so, he added, the United States could find itself facing a new kind of space competition. "They're going to be in the top echelon of an exclusive club," Mr. Oberg said. "And they're not going to retrace everybody's steps. For much of that time, the other countries were going in circles."

Beijing officials talk of sending astronauts to the Moon and of planting a colony on Mars. "Down the road, it will become quite important to the White House," Mr. Vick predicted. "People are going to have to make a decision of how to take on this challenge."

Copyright 2003, The New York Times Company