October 2008: China’s first space walk

Last Saturday Chinese TV viewers were held spellbound as the Shenzhou V11 spacecraft beamed back images showing “taikonaut” Zhai Zhigang perform the country’s first space walk.

The ensuing celebrations, culminating in an open-top-car victory parade through the streets of Beijing, were a show of space-induced national unity not seen since the heady days of the US Soviet space race.

space walk
Zhai Zhigang performing China’s first space-walk

While the overwhelming preoccupation with economic meltdown meant that the story only really got the briefest of mentions by news organisations outside China, on another day the latest chapter in China’s fast developing space program may well have been regarded as an event of huge international significance.

After all, here was the world’s next superpower flexing its technological muscle much the same way that the US and Russia did throughout the cold war. And we all know where that nearly led.

A range of factors are driving China’s space ambitions, not least a political desire to prolong the Olympic feel good factor and focus public attention away from the country’s social and economic problems. But although some have sought to portray the latest development as little more than an effort to quell domestic discontent, China’s latest technological leap should not be so easily underestimated.

Indeed, last year, at a lecture marking the agency’s 50th anniversary, none other than NASA administrator Michael Griffin predicted that China would beat the US 2020 deadline for returning astronauts to the moon.

Clearly, China still has a very long way to go before it has a space program to rival NASA’s, but before a space race and all that entails gathers pace, perhaps it is now time to start talking seriously of collaboration. A promising sign that this might be the way things are heading emerged earlier in the summer when reports suggested that the US and China were forming working groups for discussions in Earth and Space science. It’s clearly very early days in this relationship, but it’s to be hoped that these early seeds of collaboration can take root and grow into something that genuinely benefits humanity. The last thing we want in these troubled times is an ugly rerun of the cosmic one-upmanship of the cold war.

Jon Excell, deputy editor