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UPDATED: November 26, 2014 NO. 27 JULY 4, 2013
Exploits Into the Unknown
China's space program enters a new phase
By Li Li

GIANT SPACE MUTANTS: Larger-than-average peppers and pumpkins, the fruits of seeds which traveled aboard satellites and spacecraft, are exhibited at an agricultural show in Xianyang, Shaanxi Province, on November 20, 2012 (JIAO WEIPING)

Heilongjiang Bayi Agricultural University has started to harvest the fruits of one breeding program's fifth generation of seeds. Some of this season's muskmelons and watermelons came from seeds that traveled aboard Shenzhou-8.

Similarly, Shenzhou-10 carried seeds of teas from Fujian Province, where they will soon be planted. Zhou Xiaoji, a senior research fellow with the China Aerospace Consulting Corp. under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASTC), said that aerospace technologies are an engine for socioeconomic development and are key to China transforming its growth models, seeking new economic drives and building an innovation-oriented country.

"The 'space economy' is so much more than 'space rice' and 'space vegetables' sold in supermarkets. It could be an important drive for economic growth in the future and will reshape our life," said Wang Kunsheng, a senior engineering expert from the CASTC. He believes all economic activities induced by space technologies should fall within the scope of the "space economy," including activities in telecommunications, finance, medical care, national defense, tourism and energy exploration.

Wang said that of the 1,100 new materials developed in China in recent years, 80 percent were inspired by technologies used in aerospace programs.

According to Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space program, most in-flight experiments have been conducted during manned flights and these experiments have advanced China's studies in mechanical, electronic and information technologies, as well as energy, material, chemical and textile industries.

People's Daily, a leading Chinese newspaper, reported in June 2012 that China's civil aerospace industry's output had accounted for half of the country's aerospace industry and its investment to output ratio was 1 to 10.

The newspaper also reported that the aerospace industry's supply chains had become an industry with annual revenue of 120 billion yuan ($19.52 billion). Satellite surveys have been used for mineral exploration, geographical studies and construction of railways and bridges.

Funding diversification

Besides manned spaceflight, China has achieved plenty more in its space endeavors. The Fengyun meteorological satellites and oceanic satellites provide reliable meteorological data. The Beidou Navigation System had covered the Asia-Pacific region by the end of 2012 and is expected to realize global coverage in 2020. By then, China will have an independent global satellite navigation system serving ships, airplanes and field workers.

However, China's space industry still relies heavily on government investment. People's Daily reported that the global space industry relies on commercial operations for more than 60 percent of its total income, while this ratio is much lower in China. Zhou Xiaoji told People's Daily that spending in China's space industry accounted for only 3 percent of the world's total and the participation of the private sector in China's space industry is minimal.

Experts say that the lack of commercial operations in China's space program can be attributed to several factors: no entry for private capital, lack of a stable long-term satellite system, fierce international competition and technical barriers installed by Western countries against China.

Zhou Xiaoji believes that an even larger barrier to capital diversification of China's space program is the rigid department-based management of these programs. For example, many government departments can apply for the launch of a satellite for a specific mission and these departments often don't communicate their needs. As a result, one satellite only serves one purpose when it could serve several.

While the research and development of satellite manufacturing cannot be opened to private capital for now, private capital should be welcomed as a good beginning of commercial operations in China's space program, experts say.

Email us at: lili@bjreview.com

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