BEIJING: China marks 10 years since it first sent a human into space Tuesday, with its ambitious program rocketing ahead while rival National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is largely closed because of the United States (US) government shutdown.
Yang Liwei orbited the Earth 14 times during his 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5 in 2003, blazing a trail into the cosmos for China.
More than 40 years after Yuri Gagarin’s groundbreaking journey, the mission made China only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the US to carry out an independent manned spaceflight.
At the time, Beijing was so concerned about the viability of the mission that at the last minute it cancelled a nationwide live television broadcast of the launch.
But since then, China has sent a total of 10 astronauts—eight men and two women—into space on five separate missions, and launched an orbiting space module, Tiangong-1.
Its latest manned trip, the Shenzhou 10 in June, was not only greeted with wall-to-wall TV coverage, but also attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who told the crew their 15-day mission represented a step towards making the country stronger and a “space dream” for the Chinese people.
Chinese firms have seized on the anniversary to promote goods from watches to engine oil, including a 9,800 yuan ($1,600) set of teapots said to be signed by all its space voyagers.
Beijing sees the multibillion-dollar military-run space program as a marker of its rising global stature and mounting technical expertise, as well as the ruling Communist Party’s success in turning around the fortunes of the once poverty-stricken nation.
Its ambitious plans for the future ultimately include landing a Chinese citizen on the moon, with an unmanned moon rover to be launched by the end of this year, a fourth launch center opening in two years’ time, and a permanent orbiting space station to be completed by 2023.
Around the same time, the International Space Station operated by the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe will be retired.
It is a symbolic coincidence and a reflection of shifting power balances back on the Earth, analysts say.
The rapid, purposeful development of China’s space program is in sharp contrast with the US, which launched its final space shuttle flight in 2011 and whose next step remains uncertain amid waning domestic support for spending federal dollars on space exploration.
Last week space conference organizers said NASA personnel were not legally allowed to read their emails because of the US government shutdown, and visitors to NASA’s website were met with a notice reading: “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.”