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Significance and Implications of Shenzhou 10

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 24, 2013

    One of the primary components of the power struggle during the Cold War Era between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union was the race to supremacy in space exploration and technology. With the rise of China in the 21st century, the space arena has gained renewed attention with China focusing its energy towards achieving space capability and showcasing its power ascendancy.

    China on June 11 launched its 5th manned space mission Shenzhou 10, using the Long March 2F launcher. Significantly, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the first Chinese manned space mission and Shenzhou 10 projects the technological prowess China has developed over the last decade. Reports confirm that Shenzhou 10 successfully completed the automated docking with Tiangong I that was sent in space in September 2011. In addition, Shenzhou 10 also successfully completed the manual docking procedure on June 23.1 However this is not the first time that China has demonstrated this capability. Shenzhou 9 had also successfully completed the procedure in June 2012.2

    Till date China has successfully conducted two space docking missions. Shenzhou 8 was an unmanned mission that completed the docking procedure with Tiangong I in December, 2011. Subsequently, Shenzhou 9, which carried the first Chinese female astronaut, successfully completed docking with Tiangong I in June, 2012.

    However what is unique about Shenzhou 10 is the fact that it is to be the longest Chinese space mission with astronauts (three including one female) expected to stay in space for a period of 15 days.

    This mission is a crucial step towards fulfilling China’s plans of building a space station by the year 2020. As per reports, the Astronauts participating in Shenzhou 10 will be conducting a number of other experiments and are expected to check the space module’s systems. The projected Chinese space station is supposed to be of 60 tonnes, much smaller than the currently functional International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is about 400 tonnes in weight and is managed jointly by the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and other countries. China is not a part of the ISS.

    Reports also suggest that on June 20, Wang Yaping, the female astronaut successfully conducted classes to students while in space. This only highlights the point that China has successfully tested the transmission and communication capabilities of the module. In addition, it may also help in motivating younger generations towards space knowledge and learning. In addition to this the astronauts are expected to have the same sleep schedule highlighting the fact that there is an increased confidence in the involved technology of the concerned spacecraft.3

    The successful launch and docking of the Shenzhou 10 highlights the great feats which China has achieved with respect to space technologies. This development has fuelled an important debate on the comparison between China and the US on space-capacities. In the last couple of years, the US has been reducing its investments in the space arena. Coupled with the consistent rise in the space advancement made by Beijing, the US space-budget cuts have rekindled the question whether China would overtake the US earlier than it has been forecast. However, it needs to be reemphasized that the US is still a long way ahead of China with respect to space technologies and capabilities.

    Nationalism also plays a very important role in projections of the utility of the Chinese space programme for its people. The Chinese government has always portrayed the achievements in the space domain as an important step in the national rise discourse. Second, these developments have also been linked with the growth and prosperity of China. Space developments are also highlighted as the logical step towards China’s attainment of a Great Power status. The Chinese media takes considerable pride in these achievements as stated by the People’s Daily, “With 10 astronauts and six spacecrafts launched in a decade, China is speeding up on the path of exploration and building a home for Chinese in the galaxy”.4

    The technological know-how presented by China in successfully conducting the docking and stay of the astronauts is being projected as benign exercise. However, it needs to be reemphasized that no technology is one-dimensional. These very techniques and technologies can be used for military purposes as well. Space technologies tend to have spin-off effects that could certainly help China in further improving its military and defence capabilities. This seems probable as the Chinese space programme has had a very strong linkage with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) since its very inception. Thus, it is no surprise that China’s increasing space capability is a cause of apprehension for its neighbours as well as the international community in general.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.