China this week launches its most ambitious space mission yet, a sign of rising confidence as Beijing cements its status as a space power and potential future competitor to the US.
The Shenzhou 7 mission, to launch as early as tomorrow, will be the first to carry a full complement of three astronauts, one of whom will perform China’s first space walk, or EVA for “extra-vehicular activity”.
It is China’s third manned mission.
The manoeuvre will help China master docking techniques needed for the construction of a space station, likely to be achieved initially by joining one Shenzhou orbiter to another.
The mission launches from the Jiuquan launch site in northwestern China. The lead astronaut, Zhai Zhigang, is expected to carry out the 40-minute spacewalk, which China will broadcast live.
“Shenzhou 7 is an incremental but important step forward,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space programme at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.
Riding a wave of pride and patriotism after hosting the Olympics, China’s communist leaders face few of the public doubts or budgetary pressures constraining such programmes elsewhere.
That has allowed them to fuse political will and scientific gusto in a step-by-step process that could one day see Chinese astronauts landing on the moon.
Chinese space programs are methodically moving forward in a “very deliberate, graduated” manner, said Charles Vick, a space analyst for Washington think tank GlobalSecurity.org.
Beijing is accumulating the building blocks of a comprehensive program, demonstrating “caution but confidence” as it gains on the US and other space powers, he said.
Future goals are believed to include an unmanned moon landing around 2012, a mission to return samples in 2015, and possibly a manned lunar mission by 2017 — three years ahead of the US target date for returning to the moon.
A manned lunar mission, although yet to be formally approved, is “certainly the ultimate goal,” Ms Johnson-Freese said.