The Maturing of a Space Partnership

by Chris Bergin

Over the last week, two watershed events have occurred in the history of Sino-Russian relations, one with scientific and the other with strategic implications, both highly symbolic of a deepening partnership that is sure to play a role in reshaping our world and the space frontier beyond.

On August 19, Chinese and Russian space officials held their fourth annual conference in Moscow, addressing the “spheres of cooperation” between the two nations.

This year’s meeting assessed the fulfilment of the four year plan for Sino-Russian cooperation in space. Chinese and Russian manufacturers have cooperated in the construction of launch system components and scientific instruments – and this partnership played a significant role in the development of China’s manned orbiter – the Shenzou – which is based largely on the Soyuz spacecraft.

The Sino-Russian partnership has focused on the sharing of technology, avoiding the areas of manned spaceflight and military space interests.

In October 2003, Colonel Yang Liwei became China’s first man in space, successfully orbiting the Earth in the Shenzou V, and safely returning home. The Shenzou – meaning “divine vessel” – incorporates the latest in computer technology, which is largely a product of the first four years of the Sino-Russian partnership.

At the Moscow conference, Anatoly Perminov, director of the Roskosmos, presented an award named in honor of Russia’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, to China’s first taikonaut, Colonel Liwei.

Liwei’s successful mission has instilled a great deal of confidence in China’s space officials, who speak of an operational space station by 2008, and a manned lunar landing shortly thereafter. Ouyang Ziyuan, a scientist involved with China’s lunar program, told the Beijing Review, “China should not drag its feet in exploring the moon.” Ziyuan added, “Whoever gets [to the Moon] first will acquire the resources first.”

Later in the conference, Colonel Liwei was invited to travel aboard Russia’s latest space plane concept, the “Kliper”, in a trip around the Moon. Perminov assured Xinhau, China’s press agency that “complete qualification of the shuttle will be made within the next three years. Then, (the Kliper) will be the main transportation vehicle for cosmonauts.”

The Russians envision the Kliper orbiter to be ready for manned flights by 2010, the year NASA has scheduled the STS Orbiter fleet for retirement.

The Kliper orbiter will replace NASA’s STS Orbiter, and provide a launch system to ferry people and payload to the ISS and possibly to the Moon. The Kliper can carry six crew plus 500 kg in payload, or two crew and an additional 700 kg in payload. It will launch atop a modified Soyuz rocket, and can glide onto a runway or parachute to a landing site in Central Asia’s desert region. The European Space Agency has expressed interest in the Kliper orbiter, which will likely compete with NASA’s next generation shuttle-derived launch systems.

The Moscow space conference fell upon the day commencing the largest joint military exercises between China and Russia, involving air, land and sea forces of the two nations. Named “Peace Mission 2005”, the operation was hailed a success by the Chinese and Russian military communities, further expanding the orbits of Sino-Russian technical and strategic cooperation.

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