This century's space race

Will Hodges on China's winning streak

The news that China has sent its first ever female astronaut into space has hit the headlines around the world. 33-year-old Liu Yang was one of three Chinese astronauts to take part in a Chinese mission to the orbiting module Tiangong 1. The venture, launched from the edge of the Gobi desert in northern China, is China's fourth manned space mission.

Liu's passage is the latest landmark in China's remarkable space exploration programme. The country began working on a manned space programme known as Project 921 in 1999 and sent its first crewless vessel into orbit during the same year. The next phase of the project was achieved in 2003 with the successful launch of its first astronaut into space. In 2011, the government announced a five-year space exploration programme which is set to include a space lab and the retrieval of lunar earth samples by 2016. There are also plans to achieve a manned moon landing by 2020 and to construct a manned space station by 2020. The programme is being coordinated by the country's armed forces, known as The People's Liberation Army, which has the authority to call on civilian resources such as universities and laboratories to achieve its goals.

The world is not enough...

The rapid development of Chinese space exploration bears considerable parallels with the country's economic rise over the past two decades. The Chinese growth story has been unique in historical terms: in 2003 the country had the world's sixth largest GDP. Since then it has overtaken France (in 2004); the UK (2006); Germany (2009); and Japan (2011). It's forecast to replace the US as the world's largest economy as early as 2019.

Meanwhile, the country's urban development and industrialisation dwarfs anything seen during the UK and US industrial revolutions in terms of speed and scale. Between 2003 and 2002, 120 million people, almost one tenth of the entire Chinese population, relocated from the countryside to its cities. A further 350 million are projected to join them by 2030. This massive increase in the country's urban population and a consequential rise in consumer demand has been the driver of China's industrial and manufacturing boom which has in turn fuelled the economy further.

To infinity and beyond...

The frenetic pace of China's space programme and the parallel growth in the nation's economic and political significance bears resemblance to the speed of developments in the space race between the US and the former Soviet Union which came to define the rivalry between the two superpowers during the cold war years. Between the late 1950s and 1970s, the countries vied with each other to push the boundaries of space travel as quickly as possible, shedding billions of dollars in the process, as they jostled for supremacy on earth. The Soviets struck the first blow, sending the first man into space in 1961, before the US upped the ante by achieving the first moon landing in 1969.

The competition between the two was as much about prestige as any real desire for technological progress. As the embodiment of capitalist ideology, the US could not be seen to lose out to a communist state, and vice versa. Both countries needed to be seen to be spending more and making the biggest breakthroughs in what was essentially one of history's most expensive PR exercises.

One suspects that the motives behind China's own space race are not too dissimilar. Some observers have argued that the country's efforts in this field, over four decades after the Soviet Union first put a human into space, are an attempt to boost its international status as the pace of American and Russian developments in space travel has slowed and European initiatives remain relatively low profile. While the country's dramatic economic rise over the years has earned China growing respect from the west, its relationship with the developed world remains tense and the country has yet to be fully integrated into the international community. China's record on human rights has led to an uneasy rapport with organisations such as the United Nations (UN), while the US has vented resentment at some of the country's trade policies.

Phoning home

Space travel may also be an attempt by the government to curry favour with its citizens. Many of the country's achievements in space have been broadcast live on national television, including the remote control docking of the Shenzhou 8 capsule with the Tiangong 1 orbital module in November 2011, which was also publicly watched by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao from the Aerospace Command and Control Centre in Beijing. With growing political unrest among the Chinese population - resulting partly from the low wages paid to industrial workers - good news stories such as the launch of Liu Yang into orbit have provided a much needed distraction.