The Shenzhou IX spacecraft is expected to return to Earth soon after a successful manual docking with the Tiangong 1 orbiting module. And on Wednesday, the manned submersible Jiaolong, conducted its fifth dive in the Mariana Trench to a depth of more than 7,000 meters.
These two high-tech achievements have attracted worldwide attention and reminded many Chinese people of some lines in a poem written by Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1960s: "We can clasp the moon in the Ninth Heaven, and seize turtles deep down in the Five Seas."
Actually, the Chinese have mastered the technologies for docking a spacecraft with an orbiting module since November 2011 when the unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou VIII successfully completed an automated docking with Tiangong 1. But being able to dock manually is essential in case telecommunications between the spacecraft and the land-based control center are interrupted.
Foreign observers have estimated a huge amount has been spent on the space program since 1992. However, a representative of the space program, Wu Ping, said it had cost just about 19 billion yuan ($2.98 billion). However, the country's GDP in 2011 reached 47 trillion yuan. So there should be no worries that the space program will be too big a burden for China.
China has made great progress in its space technologies. Yet, its achievement should not be overestimated. Its space technologies still lag far behind the United States, especially with regard to the R&D on the large thrust rocket engine, the space station (the Tiangong 1 is by no means a space station), space shuttles, and sophisticated satellites. It will take China years, maybe decades, to catch up with the United States even if the US space program remains stagnant.
Indeed, the success of the Shenzhou IX mission should not add to the perceptions of a China threat, as China cannot overtake the US' space program, especially its advanced satellites and sensors, which have military applications.
The US has not pushed forward its space technologies following two shuttle disasters. In 1986 Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight and in 2003 Columbia broke up on re-entry disasters, the seven crew members of both shuttles died. Shuttle operations were delayed for over two years after each disaster. US space technologies have reached a plateau over the past 25 years. NASA's budget has been frozen for the past two decades. Taking into account inflation, its budget has actually reduced 3 percent annually. Most of the specialists and engineers working at NASA are now over 50 years old. It needs an injection of new blood.
This is why the achievements China has achieved in recent years look relatively outstanding. If the US generates more resources to kick-start its space program again, it would take China at least half a century to catch up.
This is not the case, however, for China's manned deep-sea submersible Jiaolong. The submersible has now reached depths of more than 7,000 meters below sea level. The automatically controlled submersibles of the United States, Japan, France, and Russia can reach depths of less than 6,500 meters.
Moreover, it is reported that Jiaolong has "a unique hovering and locating ability" and "possesses advanced micro-acoustic communication and undersea topography detection capabilities, enabling high-speed transmission of images and voice and detection of small marine targets".
According to a Chinese expert, Jiaolong's "hovering and locating ability" are much better than those of its foreign counterparts.
The operations of the Jiaolong enable China to conduct scientific surveys in over 99.8 percent of the world's seabed areas. The R&D on the Jiaolong and other facilities for exploring and mining natural gas and oil in the ocean floor actually signals China's potential for acquiring these natural resources.
Some say the Jiaolong will further agitate China's neighbors that have territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, the truth is just the opposite. As none of the Southeast Asian countries has the technology for deep-sea exploitation, it paves the way for China and its Southeast Asian neighbors to exploit the natural resources at different sea levels. Hence it is high time for those countries that have claims on territory in the South China Sea to shelve the disputes and jointly exploit the resources with China.
The author is a research associate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University in California, US.