Building a Heavenly Palace in outer space

China’s permanent space station, the Heavenly Palace, is to be launched into orbit within a decade. According to Chinese media reports, the 60-ton craft will include a central module and two laboratories, for a crew of three. So, it’s really more like a country cottage than a palace.

This all-Chinese project was unveiled earlier this week in the capital, Beijing. To the public at home, the announcement is no big news. In the West, by contrast, it has created a strong, largely negative, response. Let’s try to find out why.

Technology catch-up

Does the Heavenly Palace project indicate China’s technological supremacy? Not yet. Rather, it suggests the country is focused on catching up with its (more advanced) Western competitors.

China’s space program kicked off in 1956, a year after Qian Xuesen returned home.

Born and raised in Hangzhou, Qian enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States. He then completed a research program at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and was awarded his doctorate there.

Qian was among the founders of the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Jet Propulsion Center at Caltech. During the McCarthyist “witch hunts” of the 1950s, he faced accusations of collaborating with the Communists and was barred from further participation in jet propulsion research. On finding himself at a loose end, Qian decided to return to his native China. And so he did – to become the founding father of the country’s space program.

Chinese aerospace professionals followed closely in the wake of the Soviet Union and the United States. They would send mice and dogs into outer space aboard sounding rockets before finally bringing their first satellite into orbit in 1970 and launching manned flight program. This was quickly mothballed and did not resume until 2003, when the first Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut as they are known locally, was sent on a mission.

China now has three operational launching sites and a fourth one under construction. It has made significant advances in its satellite program, and its fleet boasts remote-sensing, communications, navigation and positioning systems.

Now China looks set to delve deeper into outer space. Its lunar research program, known as Chang’e, has seen some successes since its first unmanned lunar probe was launched in 2007.

In parallel, China is pursuing a covert aerospace program to benefit its defense ministry. Naturally, this military program is of far greater concern to the West than the country’s civilian space endeavors. According to U.S. media reports, in 2007 officials in Washington were deeply shocked to learn about a successful Chinese test of an anti-satellite system. In that test, a ballistic missile was used to destroy one of the country’s own orbiting satellites.

Similar tests were carried out in Russia and the United States back in the 1980s (Soviet fighter satellites destroyed target systems with shrapnel whereas in American experiments, suborbital interceptors were deployed). However, those tests were eventually put on hold to prevent potential damage to military and civilian orbiting systems.

The Americans are seriously concerned by China’s space ambitions, but that barely registers in China. The country is pursuing an independent space policy, and feels it can act however it sees fit. It does accept, though, that space should not be militarized. At least for the time being.

Russian experts, however, do not share U.S. concerns about China’s space advances. They argue that so far, it has not come up with any fundamentally new developments in the area. The country’s space program is just an epigone of the original Soviet project, and thanks to this fact the Chinese can easily avoid the mistakes made by space trailblazers in the USSR.

From rickshaws to space shuttles

It is not really China’s rapid technological advances that make the West jittery. The problem lies in their mentality. Despite the demise of colonialism in the mid-20th century, Westerners still find it hard to come to terms with the fact that they are not superior in culture and intellect.

It is only a hundred years since the Chinese dethroned their last emperor. The empire was then severely degraded, and lagging a couple of centuries behind the West. It is only a century since Chinese men took to cutting their waist-long hair, traditionally worn in braids, which symbolized loyalty to the ruling dynasty.

In an effort to escape famine in their native land, many fled to nearby European colonies, where they tried to earn themselves a living by hard physical labor such as moving rocks, or pulling rickshaw carriages. Photos of China in the early 20th century that have survived to this day depict a world apart from China today.

Over the decades, the Middle Kingdom has transformed itself from a feudal backwater into a technology-oriented world power, with several manned space missions under its belt. Obviously this fact is not easy for Westerners to digest.

The importance of showing off

The Chinese are aware of the importance of “visual effects” like no other nation. July 1 of this year, China will launch its first aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang, remodeled from the Soviet ship Varyag. Online discussions about the forthcoming event suggest that it is more important psychologically than militarily. An article in the British newspaper The Guardian also raises that psychological dimension, dwelling on the importance of China’s space program in bolstering national pride.

Indeed, prestige can sometimes afford a nation better protection than its very own nuclear weapons program.

Hosting the 2008 Olympics, China showed itself to the outside world as an emerging world power. These days, publicity stunts staged in Beijing tend to target domestic audiences just as much or even more than foreigners.

One of the states that China draws its inspiration from is Malaysia. In the 1970s, that Southeast Asian country decided to build an automotive industry of its own. At the time, this seemed like a crazy idea, but it did materialize, eventually.

Malaysia’s Proton cars are not all that popular, especially among its rising middle class. Should the authorities decide to lift the customs barriers protecting the Proton from competition with imported brands the manufacturers will undoubtedly go bankrupt. But however inefficient, the national car industry has brought into existence a whole network of associated production lines and a generation of skilled homegrown workforce.

The self-esteem of a nation that has come to realize how much they can accomplish is itself a great driving force. And Malaysia’s example shows just how important this realization may be in propelling a nation along its path toward economic prosperity.

China’s entire national economy stands to benefit from the new space project. The fact that it is to be implemented without any assistance from Russia or the United States will raise the prestige of this Far Eastern nation, while also enriching it economically.

It could be interesting to assess – twenty or thirty years from now – how many dividends China’s new space mission will have brought in. At this point, though, economists have no reliable methodology to make such calculations. All we can do is wait and see.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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