China’s Ambitious Objectives Two Decades after Inaugural Manned Mission

Twenty years ago, China made history by successfully launching its first crewed space mission. Since then, the country’s ambitions in space exploration have only grown, with the launch of space stations, missions to Mars, and a crewed lunar program on the horizon. This article will delve into the significance of China’s first crewed mission, the current state of its space program, and its future goals.

In October 2003, China launched the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft carrying astronaut Yang Liwei. This mission marked the beginning of China’s crewed space program and its first-ever human space launch. It was a significant milestone for the country, positioning it alongside the United States and the Soviet Union as an independent human spaceflight nation.

The mission of Yang Liwei was part of “Project 921,” which aimed to build up China’s human space capabilities. The plan consisted of three stages: launching a crewed spaceship, establishing a space laboratory for technological breakthroughs, and building a true space station. Yang Liwei’s flight marked the completion of the first stage of Project 921.

Yang Liwei, a former fighter pilot, was chosen for the mission due to his extensive flight experience. The flight itself was relatively low-key, with neither the launch nor reentry televised. This may have been due to concerns about broadcasting a potential failure. However, the mission was a success, and China became the third nation in the world to have an independent human spaceflight program.

Since then, China has continued to make significant strides in its space program. The country has achieved many successful spaceflight missions on the first attempt, demonstrating its commitment and resources in developing a robust space program. However, China’s current human space program is not without its faults. It relies on older, toxic hypergolic propellant rockets that pose risks to humans and the environment. There have been instances where rocket stages have fallen on inhabited areas, causing property damage and raising safety concerns.

Despite these challenges, China has made remarkable progress. The Tiangong Space Station, China’s current modular space station, began assembly in April 2021. It allows for continuous crew occupation and long-term research, similar to the International Space Station. The station’s current inhabitants are the crew of the Shenzhou-16 mission, which is about to conclude its mission. The launch of Shenzhou-17 will ensure constant crew rotation on the station, a significant achievement for China’s space program.

However, the construction of the Tiangong Space Station has not been without controversy. The launch of its larger modules has resulted in uncontrolled reentries of rocket cores, potentially endangering the public. These incidents, along with earlier uncontrolled reentries and rocket stage drops, have garnered negative attention from the international space community.

Looking ahead, China has two major goals in the coming years. First, it aims to conduct more research on the Tiangong Space Station. Xuntian, a space telescope under construction, will be deployed near the station to facilitate maintenance and development activities. This will enhance China’s research capabilities in space.

Secondly, China aspires to land Chinese astronauts on the Moon. This ambitious goal requires the development of new rockets, landers, and critical technologies. China’s planned Chang Zheng 10 rocket will pave the way for lunar missions, while the Chang Zheng 9 rocket aims to be a super-heavy lift reusable rocket capable of carrying large payloads to low Earth orbit and beyond. Although these plans are still in development, China has shown determination and resources to close the gap with Western space programs.

However, China’s methods have also led to its isolation in the international space community. While the United States builds partnerships for its Artemis program, China remains largely reliant on Russia’s space program, which is experiencing its own challenges.

To wrap it up, China’s first crewed mission 20 years ago marked the beginning of its ambitious space program. Since then, the country has made significant progress in space exploration, with the establishment of the Tiangong Space Station and plans for crewed lunar missions. While China faces challenges and criticism, its dedication and resources demonstrate its commitment to becoming a major player in the global space race.