After Shenzhou Success, China Looks to the Future
Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigang, left waves near Liu Boming, center as Jing Haipeng is assisted out of the Shenzhou re-entry capsule after they landed on the plains of China's northwestern Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Sunday, Sept 28, 2008.Zhai conducted the country's first-ever spacewalk during the mission.
Credit: AP Photo/Color China Photo.

In the wake of the sterling success of its third manned space mission, China is sitting proud and looking ahead to its future in space.

Most experts agree the event, which included the nation's first spacewalk, went off without a hitch. Before the Shenzhou 7 mission launched Sept. 25, Chinese space officials said there were four main objectives to the mission: to conduct a spacewalk, to do tests of a solid lubricant material during the spacewalk, to deploy a new satellite to take images, and to use a new data relay satellite for communication, said Dean Cheng, China analyst with Alexandria, Va.-based think tank CNA Corp.

"From all accounts, that happened," Cheng told SPACE.com. "If I were the Chinese, I would be very, very happy that all four tasks came off without a hitch. And obviously they used the spacesuit, so that came up good across the board."

"Victory" for China

While conducting the spacewalk, astronaut Zhai Zhigang wore a new, Chinese-built spacesuit (called "Feitian," meaning "fly the sky" in Chinese). That it worked safely marks another significant technological achievement. Zhai, along with crewmates Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, returned to Earth on Sunday.

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao pronounced Shenzhou 7 "a victory of the Chinese space and technological field and a monumental achievement in the socialist causes," reported official state news agency Xinhua.

In another first for the Chinese space program, the major events, including launch, landing and the spacewalk, were broadcast live. The move signals both China's growing confidence in its abilities, as well as a new willingness to be open with the press and public.

"The success of Shenzhou 7 certainly shows China's commitment to an ambitious manned space program," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. "I applaud not only their technical achievements but the confidence in their program exhibited by their increasing transparency about the mission. I hope that continues and expands into all areas of their space activities."

Shenzhou 7 followed the 2005 Shenzhou 6 mission, which took two astronauts to space for five days, and the 2003 Shenzhou 5 mission, which launched China's first astronaut, Yang Liwei.

Eyes on the moon

With each new mission, China is taking steps toward its ultimate goals of establishing a more permanent presence in space through building a space laboratory, and perhaps even landing on the moon. The latter goal has been stated more explicitly after the recent success of Shenzhou 7.

"We still do not have an exact timetable for a manned mission to the moon, but I believe a Chinese (astronaut) will set foot on the moon in the not too distant future," an unnamed official told the Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily after the mission landed.

Wang Zhaoyao, spokesman for the manned space program, told reporters Sunday that it is "necessary" for China to put a man on the moon, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.

"We believe that as long as we can make further progress in science and technology, we can achieve the dream of a manned space flight to the moon in the near future," he said.

These firmer declarations of intent are significant, because China is unlikely to set a goal it doesn't believe it can accomplish.

"When you just have speculation, they're under no obligation to try it," Cheng said in a phone interview. "But when the Chinese make an official statement that they want to do something, they do it."

Near term

While moon plans may be a bit off, China's next mission is likely to put the nation on the path to a space lab.? A date has not yet been set for Shenzhou 8 or 9, but there is a good chance the two missions will be launched in close succession so they can try rendezvous and docking, experts say.

"China's next step will be clearer once a next launch date is announced toward a docking," Johnson-Freese said. "Hopefully it won't be another two years."

There are also some speculations that Shenzhou 8 will carry China's first female astronaut to space. There are currently no women in China's corps of 14 spaceflyers.

However, some press reports hint that Shenzhou 8 and 9 may be unmanned missions intended to launch the capsules needed for a small space lab, and could go up in 2010. According to those reports, the next manned mission would be Shenzhou 10.China also recently announced it was capable of training foreign astronauts, meaning that it could conceivably broker a deal with another country to carry a person into space. The United States and Russia have both engaged in similar arrangements ? Russia flew the first South Korean astronaut into space in April 2008, and the first Italian astronaut rode aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery in 2007, for example.

"Given China's diplomatic use of space, there is a very good chance they would be taking somebody from a new country," Cheng said.

China has spearheaded the founding of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, a group intended to promote space cooperation between Asian nations. Cheng pointed out that both Iran and Pakistan are members of the group, and could be potential clients for Chinese space transport.

"I would strongly suspect that at this point in time the U.S. is probably unlikely to be taking any Iranian citizens into space," Cheng said. "But China has had successful sales of satellites to Nigeria and Venezuela, both of which are oil-producing countries, which would make Iran a candidate as someone who might send an astronaut up."

A foreign astronaut could even fly as early as Shenzhou 9, Cheng speculated.