China's Space Program Gets a Boost
Friday, March 31, 2023

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American and Russian aerospace engineers perfected space docking in the 1960s, but Wu Ping, a spokeswoman for China's manned space program, said that Chinese scientists had come to this moment largely on their own, having domestically produced hundreds of components and instruments. "This makes China one of the few countries in the world that can independently research and develop docking mechanisms," Ms. Wu said at a news conference on Thursday, describing the achievement as "a historic breakthrough for our country and a huge technical leap forward."   Some Western scientists, however, said the successful mission provided stark evidence that the 20-year-old sanctions that limit cooperation between American and Chinese aeronautical engineers had failed.  The policy, imposed by Congress shortly after Beijing's violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, restricts scientific exchanges and blocks exports of space technology. Chinese scientists are barred from American space conferences, and China is not among the 16 countries whose astronauts are allowed to use the International Space Station.  In the two decades since it was frozen out of the world's elite space club, China has relied on its own aerospace engineers, aided by lavish government financing, to chase its space exploration dreams. In 2003 came the first successful human space flight, and in recent years Chinese scientists have mastered the manufacture and launching of communication satellites, many of which are sold to nations in the developing world. In 2008, Chinese astronauts took their first spacewalk, and last year China sent up a second lunar probe.  In an ominous turn, in 2007 Beijing successfully tested an antisatellite missile that alarmed Washington and angered many international scientists for rendering the target, an aging weather satellite, into potentially dangerous orbital debris.  Gregory Kulacki, China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization based in Cambridge, Mass., says the Congressional ban on cooperation with China spurs suspicion on both sides of the Pacific and fuels a costly, unnecessary space race. "When we deny them visas, it breeds hostility among young Chinese scientists," he said, adding, "the lack of cooperation could lead to miscalculations and escalated conflicts in times of crises."


Conversely, he and other scientists say, cooperation has a multitude of benefits, especially in an era of trillion-dollar deficits. For one, the prohibitive cost of NASA's dreamed mission to Mars would be better shared by other nations, as John P. Holdren, the White House science adviser, has said in the past.  In testimony before a House panel on Wednesday in which he defended his contacts with Chinese officials, Mr. Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, tried to tamp down Congressional opposition to White House efforts that seek expanded scientific exchanges with China.  He pointed out that 30 years of cooperation had brought a multitude of benefits, from physics to pest control. The exchanges, he said, "strengthen our hand in the effort to get China to change the aspects of its conduct that we oppose."  Many members of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee, however, were not impressed, citing Beijing's troubled human rights record and a growing number of cases involving technology theft from American companies. "Any effort on our part to reach out to the Communist Chinese, to engage them on matters of technology is, quite frankly, not just naïve but dangerous," said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California.  The snubs may sting, but the restrictions do not seem to be holding back China's aerospace industry. In celebrating the successful docking on Thursday, Ms. Wu of China's manned space program said that even if its spacecraft were homemade, China would not exclude other countries from playing a role in its aerospace program. German scientists, she said, had equipped the Shenzhou 8, with a device for conducting experiments. And unlike the International Space Station, China's space laboratory will have no membership restrictions when it becomes operational. "The planned Chinese space station will be open to global scientists," she said.