China’s exuberant space program will make you feel excited about space travel again

July 11, 2013
July 11, 2013

Say what you will about China’s space ambitions—they are real, they are exciting, and they have come a long way.

It was only some 10 odd years ago that China sent its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into space. After orbiting the earth 14 times, and landing safely the following morning, Yang expressed his desire that others would feel inspired, saying “I hope my experience will encourage more people to become interested in space technology and support space development.”

In the decade since his trip, China has launched four more manned space missions. In 2005, it sent two men into space. In 2008, China sent three, and completed a spacewalk. Last year it sent the country’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, into space and back. And just last month, China sent three astronauts into orbit for 15 days.

True, the US and Russia have had manned space missions since the 1960s. But the US government is no longer as focused on putting people into space. Rather than centralizing its space efforts as it has in the past with NASA, the US is trying to cultivate a private sector of space travel currently led by private companies like Boeing, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation. While it’s possible that China, despite its advances, may be running the wrong race—namely, a race that countries like the US have since abandoned—it and Russia are the only two governments at the moment capable of independently sending humans into space. China has already become a more important player than Europe in both space research and travel, and by 2020, intends to build a massive and permanently staffed space station of its own.

It’s hard not to appreciate the excitement felt by a country still so ambitious about and invested in government-led space travel. China’s earnest dive into the space game, however late it may be, shouldn’t be laughed at—it should be lauded. Its newness to space travel is part of what makes it all so exciting.

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The Shenzhou V space capsule, which carried Yang Liwei in China’s first manned mission into space.(Reuters)
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In 2005, scores of Chinese, including many soldiers, gathered to watch China’s second manned mission.(Reuters/CDIC)
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The mission was a success, and the astronauts landed safely in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Here, Chinese technicians check the reentry capsule after its successful landing.(Reuters/CDIC)
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The Shenzhou-7 manned spaceship
China’s third manned mission came just before they hosted the Olympics. Here, the Shenzhou-7 manned spaceship is seen at the assembly workshop at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.(Reuters/Stringer Shanghai)
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The mission sent Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng (L), Zhai Zhigang (C) and Liu Boming into space in 2008, and included the country’s first ever spacewalk.(Reuters/Stringer Shanghai)
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Astronaut Zhai Zhigang
Astronaut Zhai Zhigang became the country’s first man to walk in space. Here, Zhai waves as he exits the Shenzhou VII space craft.(Reuteres)
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The Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft
China’s fourth manned mission sent three Chinese astronauts into space last year. Here, The Shenzhou-9 manned spacecraft, Long March-2F rocket, and escape tower wait to be transferred to the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Gansu province.(Reuters/CDIC)
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Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut.
The mission included astronaut Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut to travel into space.(Reuters/Jason Lee)
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Chinese astronauts (from L to R) Zhang Xiaoguang, Nie Haisheng and Wang Yapin
China’s fifth and latest manned mission launched last month. Here, Chinese astronauts (from L to R) Zhang Xiaoguang, Nie Haisheng and Wang Yaping salute in a re-entry capsule during a training at Beijing Aerospace City in Beijing.(Reuters/China Stringer Network)
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Chinese astronaut Nie Haisheng
After 15 days in orbit, the astronauts landed back on earth on June 26. Here, Chinese astronaut Nie Haisheng waves before getting out of the re-entry capsule of China’s Shenzhou-10 spacecraft after it landed at its main landing site in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.(Reuters/CDIC)

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