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A great leap skyward

China is moving at warp speed in the space race with India and Japan. Washington and Europe take notice.

November 18, 2007|Mark Magnier, Bruce Wallace and Shankhadeep Choudhury | Times Staff Writers

XICHANG, CHINA — The oversized ambitions, secretive military culture and still-impoverished population underpinning China's space program are on full display here at the Xichang space center, the site of last month's moon probe launch.

Two beefy People's Liberation Army soldiers stop foreigners from entering the "world-famous" launch center and museum in Sichuan province, even though all the information on display is available on the Internet and China's technology lags behind that of its Western counterparts.

Not far away, still within the secure area, two water buffalo lumber along, nudged by a farmer who probably earns less than $10 a month.

"I think China should spend more on space even if we still have a lot of poor people," said Yang Jixiang, a Xichang driver. "It shows our country is emerging and becoming richer. I fully expect one day we'll match the U.S."

Even as China's economic footprints expand on Earth, its growing space ambitions are turning heads skyward, prompting hand-wringing in Washington and a competitive response from neighbors.

The launch of the Chang'e 1 lunar probe mission came a month after Japan's Kaguya launch. India, ever wary of its ambitious neighbor to the north, is expected to follow suit early next year.

On other fronts, India in April successfully tested a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads to much of Asia and the Middle East. In February, Japan completed a network of four spy satellites able to eyeball the globe. South Korea has also stepped up its ambitions, including a planned kimchi-in-space experiment, even as Malaysian astronauts ponder how a good Muslim in orbit should fast till sundown and pray five times a day when the sun is rising every 90 minutes.

Starry-eyed as they may be over the potential economic windfall, the Asian nations' space dreams are also driven by growing wealth and national pride, analysts say, particularly in the case of India and China, which see these programs as a way to signal they've arrived.

"I'm not sure I'd call it a passing of the baton because I'm not sure the West is on the way down," said Jonathan McDowell, space program historian and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "But it's very clear Asia is on the way up."

The accelerating pace being set by China signals how far it's come since 1970, when scientists warned that too many Mao badges aboard the nation's first East is Red satellite would impair orbiting.

Four years after the Asian giant became the third nation after the U.S. and Soviet Union to launch its own manned space flight, China last month announced a new, more powerful rocket. And in January, a Chinese missile successfully destroyed an aging weather satellite.

China, in keeping with its "peaceful rise" mantra, has downplayed any aggressive intent. "In the future we will see more cooperation with America than competition," said Jiao Weixin, a professor at Peking University's School of Earth and Space Sciences.

The U.S. and European Union remain wary, however, particularly after January's satellite-killer test and the large amount of space debris it generated.

"We're very nervous about China's capability to interfere with our own satellites in a period of tension or conflict," said John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "It's a pretty opaque society, and that applies to space as well."

China has countered that all militaries are secretive, space debris is a global problem, and Moscow and Washington have conducted many similar tests over the years.

A closer look at Asia's space balance sheet finds China the clear leader in manned space flight. Beijing also boasts the most extensive infrastructure, with three launch sites in place and a just-announced combined pad and theme park on the drawing board in southern Hainan island.

Also working in China's favor, said Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, is solid government backing, its pick of the nation's scientists and close, if far from transparent, links with the military.

"But its poor relations with the United States in space is a major weakness," Moltz added, relative to Japan and India, which enjoy far greater access to U.S. technology.

Japan is ahead of China in areas such as deep-space probes and robotics and enjoys a more focused, high-tech approach. But it suffers from relatively limited budgetary and popular support, and almost no help from the military.

"The importance of space had been declining for a long time," said Kazuto Suzuki, a specialist in global space issues at Tsukuba University in Tokyo. "But with the Chinese taking new leadership in the region, a lot of politicians are asking why China can do all this with its technical limits, while Japan cannot capitalize on its technological advantage."

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