China's Shenzhou-9 soared from the launch pad into history on Saturday. The capsule carrying China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, and her two male colleagues, Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China, atop a Long March-2F carrier rocket.
On Monday the spacecraft successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 space lab, a vital step in China's plans to build its own permanently manned three-module space station by 2020, which will be the only space station after the programmed retirement of the International Space Station in 2020.
The ninth "Divine Vessel" adventure is more than just a milestone in space exploration; it marks the rise of China as a space-going nation, just as the Russian and the US programs lose their luster. This can be compared with the world-changing rise of Spain in search of the New World. Spain's dominance of centuries of ocean-going exploration was based on advanced shipbuilding technology and a burning quest for what has been characterized as "God, gold and glory". China now has the technology, but unlike the conquistadors it is not proselytizing and not seeking to steal gold.
The spirit and motives of Chinese space program are reflected in the Zheng He voyages to India, Arabia and Africa, which preceded Christopher Columbus' expedition to the New World. The Chinese expeditions were much larger in both vessel size and personnel numbers than any expedition out of Europe. Their main purpose was to share Chinese culture; they carried beautiful scrolls of art and philosophy, backed up with exquisite porcelain gifts. Historians wryly note the porcelain was a bigger hit than the philosophy.
Now, with the United States and Russia no longer committed to manned space flights, China enters a new epoch as the torchbearer for space exploration. It can be reasonably predicted that China will face with enthusiasm decades of challenges in spectacular space missions. Kids in the United States in the 1950s dreamt wildly of rockets to the moon, enunciated in the then US president John F. Kennedy's 1960 announcement that "we have the technology" to reach the moon "this decade". Now Chinese kids see in the inclusion of a female astronaut in the Shenzhou-9 crew, an expectation that future space travel will include families with descendents arriving at destinations. It is okay to dream big even as others scoff.
There have been snide remarks that the Shenzhou design is a copy of Soyuz, and certainly that is partly true, but the configuration of the orbital, re-entry and service modules are basically dictated by the constraints of living in a vacuum and then facing the frictional heat of re-entry. The technical improvements of the Shenzhou design encapsulate the logarithmic achievements of the past decades in electronics and materials science. The computer guiding the US moon landings was so primitive it had no disk drive, 74 Kb of memory and 4Kb of RAM. The Shenzhou capsule is roomier and more livable in than Soyuz and has facilities for complex scientific experiments. It is the forerunner for China's long distance exploration program, the Santa Maria of China's exploration of a "New Universe".
Some in the United States have voiced concerns at what they see as China's military ambitions in space, but this is just an echo of their own world-policeman mentality. China is a signatory to all the UN space treaties and, as demonstrated in the Zheng He expeditions halfway round the globe, does not believe in "planting the flag" and colonization.
China has learnt and is learning from the rise and fall of the Russian and the US space adventures. Space travel is expensive and China still has more than 100 million people living in poverty. In the past three decades the government has lifted several hundred million out of poverty and nurtured millions of middle-income earners. Wasting money on a space race is anathema to Chinese citizens and China has long-term views to commercialize and privatize exploration and development away from Earth. How it will be funded and where income will derive from is not yet known; there may be UN-agreed mining of resources, and taking advantage of space for exotic production processes, even tourism. If the scenario of sci-fi movies ever unfolds where the Earth faces destruction, then seats on ocean liner sized descendants of Shenzhou will be selling well. In the meantime, let us revel in being witness to history as it happens, and the future of communities in space.
The author is an Australian researcher collaborating with Chinese academic and commercial institutions.