2012-06-27 — (thecitizen.co.tz and by Bob Wekesa) — When the spacecraft Shenzhou 9 blasted skywards last Saturday, millions of Chinese applauded yet another feat of the oriental nation’s steady technological gains. While Chinese media have been awash with the pride that comes with sending a female astronaut alongside two male colleagues into space, the significance of this latest space exploration mission is more than merely gender representation.
Liu Yang undoubtedly goes into the history books as the first Chinese woman to do so. Indeed, her involvement in the programme will help answer as such puzzles as: Do men and women respond differently to the space environment?
But perhaps more important is that China has over the past two decades been largely going it alone in efforts to set up a space station after exclusion from the five-nation International Space Station (ISS) programme by a US veto. If all goes according to plan, China will have its own fully fledged space station orbiting over 300 kilometres from earth in the next decade.
This will be a huge boost not only for China’s scientific advancement but also her global reputational capital.
Among other reasons motivating the US to exclude China from the ISS—jointly run with Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Union—is the jitters that China could appropriate space technology for military purposes. While the European Space Agency seems to have been at ease with China’s involvement in the ISS, the US has maintained a nay position as witnessed by the tightening of laws in 2011 that put paid to the possibility of such co-operation any time soon.
Russia has independently co-operated with China but has been limited to the rules of engagement as far as invitation of China to the ISS goes. An assumption can be made that Japan, a traditional geopolitical competitor of China’s, would equally block China from going aboard the ISS.
With this in mind, one can appreciate the effervescent mood throughout China over the weekend as the country inched closer to owning a space station. But the Champagne bottles will truly pop when the final “building blocks” fall in place and China inaugurates an independent space station in 2020 or thereabouts.
The symbolism of China’s space exploration achievements is evident in the choice of the name Shenzhou for the spacecraft—it translates into heavenly or divine craft, the same name that China has used to identify itself at various stages in its 5,000-plus continuous civilisation.
Shenzhou’s mission is to link or dock with the prototype satellite named Tiangong which has been orbiting space since September last year. Tiangong means heavenly palace in Chinese. Both Shenzhou and Tiangong were blasted into space by the Long March carrier rocket. Long March calls to mind the Chinese Communist Party’s arduous war leading to the 1949 promulgation of the People’s Republic of China.