Winston Churchill said: "[Russia] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interests." Likewise, China's space programme is a riddle, targeted towards Chinese national interests by the Chinese People's Liberation Army, a mysterious state-within-a-state that is equally enigmatic.
China's development as a space power follows a similar track to that trodden by the US and Russia. The Chinese space visionary was Tsien Hsue Shen, who had spent 20 years in the US. In 1945, as a US Air Force colonel, he toured Allied-occupied Germany, investigating the wartime V-2 rocket. Sergei Korolev, the Russian chief space designer, whose opposite number Tsien was to become, was doing the same in the other half of Germany.
In 1951, Tsien fell victim to McCarthyism and was not allowed to work in the US. In 1955, he was exchanged for some US prisoners of war captured by China in Korea. Within two months of arriving in China, he was making the first of the country's guided missiles, and within a year he was implementing a space programme. With Russian help, China built a clone of the V-2, named Dong Feng ("East Wind"), and established the first of three launching ranges, at Jiuquan in Mongolia. Later, Dong Feng military missiles were able to reach the Pacific coast and beyond. The rockets were renamed Chang Zheng ("Long March") and, although their success record is appalling, they are a message that other nations do not ignore.
In 1970, China launched its first satellite, named Dong Fang Hong ("The East is Red"), the national anthem of China at the time, which it repeatedly transmitted. By the end of 2003, China had launched 75 satellites, for Earth monitoring and telecommunications, and some for purposes that are not clear. The one that gathered the most publicity was Shenzhou 5 ("Divine Heavenly Vessel"), launched in October 2003 and carrying a Chinese taikonaut (astronaut), Yang Liwei. The satellite remained in orbit after Yang returned to Earth; its overall properties indicate that it is for military surveillance. The second manned launch of the Shenzhou series is planned for this September.
In 2000, China published an ambitious space plan. Its manned space programme aims within 20 years to establish not only a permanent space station but also a lunar colony. Will China achieve this? To succeed in space you need knowledge, resources and willpower. China and Russia have both shown that the technology is not out of reach given the risks they are prepared to take. China's booming economy is producing more than ever, and the nation seems to have determination, even if its timescales are optimistic. Certainly, the report of the Commission to Assess US National Security Space Management and Organisation, which set out the intention to deny the use of space to anyone who threatens US supremacy, was developed with China in mind.
It is to Brian Harvey's credit that he has been able to shed so much light into the obscure corners of the Chinese space programme. This is an expanded and revised version of a book first published in 1998, and it brings the story up to 2003. It is a well-written, detailed and impressive tale, and perhaps one with implications we should worry about.
Paul Murdin is senior fellow, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University.
China's Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight
Author - Brian Harvey
Publisher - Springer
Pages - 349
Price - £24.50
ISBN - 1 85233 566 1