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Shenzhou 5 launch
A Long March 2F lifts off from Jiuquan on October 15 carrying the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. Does this launch signal a new opportunity to bring China into the International Space Station project? (credit: Xinhua)

China, Shenzhou, and the ISS

After months, if not years, of anticipation and expectation, China finally became last week the third nation to place a human in orbit. Shenzhou 5 was a minimal manned mission, with one person spending less than 24 hours in orbit, but it was a milestone nonetheless. Indeed, it was almost anticlimactic: unlike Sputnik or Vostok 1, the Shenzhou 5 launch was hardly a surprise, with even the Chinese government acknowledging the impending launch several days before liftoff.

This missing element of surprise may explain the relatively muted world reaction to the launch. The Chinese government, of course, put its propaganda machine in high gear with hundreds of articles glorifying the mission and Yang Liwei. Government agencies around the world, including NASA and ESA, issued relatively bland, bureaucratic statements of congratulations to the Chinese. However, there were relatively few strong or surprised reactions to the flight by governments or other officials. One of the few sharp criticisms of the flight came from Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, who told attendees of the Space Frontier Conference in Los Angeles a few days before the launch that the upcoming mission was a “disgrace” because of both China’s poor human rights record and allegations that US companies gave China sensitive technologies for use in China’s space program and military applications.

One of the big questions in the aftermath of Shenzhou 5 is what China’s future plans are. China has offered few specific details. Xie Mingbao, director of China’s Manned Space Engineering Office, told the Chinese government news service Xinhua that Shenzhou 6, China’s next manned mission, would take place in the next “one or two years”, keeping with past trends to launch one Shenzhou mission, manned or unmanned, a year. Xie ruled out the development of a shuttle, but said that China would work on EVA, rendezvous, and docking technologies, leading up to the development of a space station at some unspecified future date.

One area of speculation about the future of China’s human spaceflight program is what role, if any, China could play in the International Space Station. “We hope the time when we will cooperate in manned flights, including within the ISS project, is not too far off,” Alexander Kaleri, a Russian cosmonaut and member of the ISS Expedition 8 crew, said in a press conference a day before his own launch on Saturday. A Chinese role in the ISS had always been discussed previously as a hypothetical possibility, given an apparent mutual lack of interest by both Chinese and American officials. Now, though, that China has its own independent means to reach the station, is it time to reexamine the issue?

After Shenzhou 5 “there will be a window of opportunity to bring China aboard” the ISS, Hays said.

That was the question examined by a number of experts during a panel on US, European, and Chinese strategic policies in space, held October 14 in Arlington, Virginia, and organized by the Homeplanet Defense Institute. While much of the discussion focused on issues such as Chinese attempts to draft a treaty to ban weapons in space, a bid to block American plans for a missile defense system, some panelists also discussed what role, if any, China could play on the ISS.

“I believe that after they are successful in having a manned orbital flight, there will be a window of opportunity to bring China aboard” the ISS, said Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Hays, executive editor of Joint Force Quarterly: A Professional Military Journal. Hays, who noted that he was speaking only for himself, said that he thought the opportunity didn’t exist before the launch “because of their own internal domestic reasons.”

“I believe that the [Chinese] manned space program is primarily aimed at getting prestige in the international community,” said Theresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information. “China wants to join the International Space Station.”

Benefits and barriers

While the US has been cool to the idea of adding China to the ISS project, Hitchens noted that bringing the Chinese into the project could be advantageous in a number of ways. “If you bring China into the ISS,” she said, “the United States will have a little more transparency about their capabilities, their programs, what they want to do.”

Adding partners to the ISS project for geopolitical reasons is not without precedent, Hays noted. “At least initially the Russians were brought on board as a counterproliferation measure,” he said. “Russia would live up to the Missile Technology Control Regime and other counterproliferation measures, and have their aerospace engineers employed on a more benign venture, like the space station.”

Besides the geopolitical issues, there may be pragmatic reasons for adding the Chinese to the ISS. “They have technical capabilities to bring to the table,” Hitchens said. “With the current issue with the shuttle, adding backup vehicles for bringing astronauts up and down from the station might not be a bad idea.”

“If you bring China into the ISS,” Hitchens said, “the United States will have a little more transparency about their capabilities, their programs, what they want to do.”

While there may be a number of good reasons for adding China to the ISS project, there are a number of barriers as well. Hays believes that convincing China to join could be a bigger obstacle than convincing the US and the other existing international partners. “My perception is that the resistance is more on the part of the Chinese at this point than it is on the part of the space station partners,” he said, basing his comments on conversations he said he’s had with people in NASA’s international programs office.

“China still has issues internally about where they are going,” said Hitchens, noting that the People’s Liberation Army runs the Chinese space program.

If the US and the other partners decided they wanted to bring include China, there would still be problems to address on the US side. “The biggest challenge to bringing the Chinese on board the ISS will be dealing with elements of the US government—the State Department, the DoD—on Chinese nonproliferation issues,” said Hays.

Hays also believed that timing was a key issue. “The window of opportunity [after Shenzhou 5] may close the further downstream the Chinese go” if they believe they will gain greater prestige benefits by going it alone, he suggested. “The United States and the world spaceflight community needs to seize this opportunity pretty quickly.”

As the panel session was wrapping up in Arlington on the evening of the 14th, halfway around the world a Long March 2F rocket was lifting off from Jiuquan, carrying Yang Liwei aboard Shenzhou 5. If there is indeed a window of opportunity for adding China to the International Space Station, then that window is now open.