Shenzhou 5, China's first manned spaceship, made the country the third to send a man into orbit using domestically developed technology.
Wang Yongzhi, Chief Designer of China's Manned Space Program, pointed out that manned space flight is one of the most complicated and difficult on the space exploration agenda because it requires a foundation of advanced technologies and economic strength. It reflects a country's overall national strength. "China's manned space technology shows the country's technological progress and its distinct characteristics," explained Wang.
China's spaceship development program has focused on multi-modules that can hold several astronauts since its earliest design. Wang said, "The United States and the former Soviet Union both had a long period in space technology development that progressed from simplicity to complication, with the volume of spaceships changing from small to large, and the number of astronauts from single to multiple. Although Shenzhou 5 is China's first manned spaceship, made up of a propulsion module, a re-entry module, an orbital module and adjunctive parts, it had the ability to carry three astronauts and the diameter of its re-entry module was 2.5 m. Thus it is considered the spaceship in use with the largest free-moving space, and is believed to belong to the third generation of manned spaceships worldwide."
"Generally, the United States and the former Soviet Union are in the first world of space technology, while China belongs to the second with India, Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA)," said Liu Tun, a professor at the Department of Astronautic Engineering and Mechanics at the Harbin University of Technology. He added, "Both Japan and the ESA have advanced technologies in the space field-the ESA launched a moon probe this September, in which electric rocket technology was adopted; and Japan has had two moon exploration experiences. So some western experts think China is a latecomer in space technologies compared to Japan, because China was the fifth country that launched satellites. Shenzhou 5's successful launch and return proved that China had mastered three key technologies-life support, re-entry and rescue technologies, which increased China's standing in this aspect. I believe that now China ranks only below the United States and Russia."
Huang Wenhu, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that Shenzhou 5 was a milestone that shows China has surpassed its former counterparts-India, Japan and the ESA. Huang said, "We are now at the stage between the first and second groups."
Before Shenzhou 5's manufacture, there was a public debate over how to realize China's dream of space travel. Li Dayao, an expert studying space history, recalled, "Some believed that the country should start to develop space technologies by making spaceships, because the Soviet Union and the United States all did so. Others thought that space shuttle technology was more advanced and that is why Japan and the ESA were focusing on that at the time. Therefore, China should first develop small-sized space shuttles, so as to shorten the distance between China and the world's advanced space technologies. This third opinion emphasized developing an aerospace aircraft that used more advanced technologies, and aviation personnel could also join in."
After a two-year discussion, experts chose to focus on a spaceship as its first project because it demanded less in terms of costs and technologies.
Currently, the United States is the only country that has totally mastered all technologies required to make a space shuttle, but also failed to guarantee its reliability, claimed Liu. 'The Soviet Union had also invested much on the space shuttle technology, but its first and last finished product, Buran, had been put out for public display after its only flight in 1988," he added.
Huang Wenhu stressed, "Never forget that China made such remarkable progress with 1 percent of the U.S. and 10 percent of Japan's total investment."
China preferred a slow but steady way to develop space technology, in accordance with its economic endurance, Huang said.
Wang Yongzhi pointed out that although China started to develop manned space technology later than some countries, it began at a more advanced place. Domestic scientists and specialists have developed all the key technologies.
Shenzhou 5's orbital module will be kept in orbit for several months, which is quite different from other modules that were usually abandoned after the re-entry module landed on earth. It will continue with scientific exploration and technological experiments as a scientific and technological satellite. Its flexibility has formed a strong base for future docking experiments between spaceships and a space station.
Wang said that the program's rocket and surveillance and communication systems were also made with advanced technologies domestically developed. Conquering difficulties during the development period greatly boosted China's scientific and technological strength.
Although China has recently made outstanding progress, it still has a way to go before it catches up to the leaders. On April 12, 1962, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space, and China's first space traveler Yang Liwei did the same thing 42 years later. However, it's not the only indicator of the technological distance between China and the former Soviet Union and the United States.
"We believe that there is about 10-15 years' distance between our country's space technology and the most advanced level in the world," Li Dayao said. "The technologies that Shenzhou 5 adopted were similar to that of the Russia's Soyuz TM spaceships, which were put into use in 1986."
Moreover, the time distance between space technology standards for China's Tiros, Telestar, return satellites, pilot satellites, resource satellites and scientific experiment satellites, which were launched in the 1990s, and that of the world is also about 10 years behind.
Manned space travel was only the first step in the development of space technologies, which consists of manned space technology, space stations and a moon probe. Both Russia and the United States had already set up space stations. Russia even developed a third-generation space station where spacecrafts could be docked and where astronauts could also step out for space walks and repair of probe equipment. The two countries finished their moon probe and took soil samples for the moon. Moreover, the United States has sent astronauts to the moon and launched a Mars probe mission.
According to a white paper on China's space activities published by the Chinese Government in November 2000, the country will focus on space station and space laboratory development and exploration in the next 10 years.
China has realized manned space travel, but, "the life support, re-entry and rescue technologies we mastered were only primary," said Liu Tun, "China's first spaceman only stayed 21 hours in space using only the necessary oxygen, nitrogen and water that could be easily carried from Earth. But if the astronaut had to stay in space for at least one week, one month or one year, a circulation system of water and air totally different from the technology we currently have would be required."
Moreover, China still has a lot of technologies to master, including space docking and assembling parts and checking equipment in space.
The technological distance between China and Russia and the United States also reflects the economic distances between the three countries. Xu Shijie, from the School of Astronautics at Beihang University, said that the remote control for Shenzhou 5 used all the country's observation stations and observatories. But the United States has three observation stations throughout the world, which are respectively in California, Canberra in Australia and Madrid in Spain. This allows the country to have no blind spots. In addition, the United States has several incept antennas able to explore the solar system, but each of these antennas costs hundreds of millions of dollars.