BEIJING: Will the next footprints on the moon be Chinese? Will The East is Red blare out from the Red Planet?
The safe return of China's first manned spacecraft after a 21-hour voyage yesterday turned a spotlight on the country's ambitions for further extraterrestrial exploits.
“The sky's the limit here,” said a Western diplomat fami-liar with China's space plans. “This is the first step of many. It's not the goal, it's the beginning of their programme.
“There are discussions of trips to Mars. Now their eyes are wide open and they are looking at a range of possibilities.”
But China's push towards the final frontier must compete for funds and attention with more earthly concerns like creating tens of millions of jobs and keeping the economy from faltering.
Any sharp downturn in the world's sixth-biggest economy – already dealing with a record budget deficit and shaky financial system – could see items like rockets and space capsules thrust on the back burner.
“A lot of these plans are over-ambitious and over-reaching to some degree and things will probably get scaled back to more doable missions,” the diplomat said.
Indeed, space officials, signalling that China has no plan to rush back to the cosmos, said the next manned flight was a year or two away.
Spacewalks, docking two spacecraft and developing a “space lab” were among China's next goals, Xie Mingbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, said.
Xie and other officials made no mention of moonbases or Mars, but the historic voyage of Yang Liwei showed how far China had come since its first satellite went up in 1970 broadcasting Mao Zedong's Communist anthem The East is Red.
“There is a real possibility they will send people to the moon or Mars in the coming decades,” said Anthony Curtis, a US-based professor and editor of Space Today Online.
“Just as China needs to prove its mettle now by putting men in Earth orbit, it needs to develop its space technology to the point where it can land men on the Moon and return them to Earth,” Curtis said.
China is also holding out the prospect of co-operating with foreign partners.
“We won't rule out assistance from outside,” Xie said. “The United States and Russia are much more experienced than us. We are very willing to learn from them.”
Given the cost of loftier projects – the price tag of the 16-nation International Space Station has been US$95bil (RM361bil) – foreign partnerships may be the way forward for China.
“While the United States seems indifferent about returning to the moon, China and other nations would like to go there. There are mining and building and astronomy opportunities there,” Curtis said.
Authorities have also asked Chinese universities to draw up blueprints for a lunar rover, one piece in ambitious moon plans that call for a permanent base. – Reuters