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A great leap skyward

Times Staff Writers

The oversized ambitions, secretive military culture and still-impoverished population underpinning China’s space program are on full display here at the Xichang space center, the site of last month’s moon probe launch.

Two beefy People’s Liberation Army soldiers stop foreigners from entering the “world-famous” launch center and museum in Sichuan province, even though all the information on display is available on the Internet and China’s technology lags behind that of its Western counterparts.

Not far away, still within the secure area, two water buffalo lumber along, nudged by a farmer who probably earns less than $10 a month.

“I think China should spend more on space even if we still have a lot of poor people,” said Yang Jixiang, a Xichang driver. “It shows our country is emerging and becoming richer. I fully expect one day we’ll match the U.S.”

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Even as China’s economic footprints expand on Earth, its growing space ambitions are turning heads skyward, prompting hand-wringing in Washington and a competitive response from neighbors.

The launch of the Chang’e 1 lunar probe mission came a month after Japan’s Kaguya launch. India, ever wary of its ambitious neighbor to the north, is expected to follow suit early next year.

On other fronts, India in April successfully tested a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads to much of Asia and the Middle East. In February, Japan completed a network of four spy satellites able to eyeball the globe. South Korea has also stepped up its ambitions, including a planned kimchi-in-space experiment, even as Malaysian astronauts ponder how a good Muslim in orbit should fast till sundown and pray five times a day when the sun is rising every 90 minutes.

Starry-eyed as they may be over the potential economic windfall, the Asian nations’ space dreams are also driven by growing wealth and national pride, analysts say, particularly in the case of India and China, which see these programs as a way to signal they’ve arrived.

“I’m not sure I’d call it a passing of the baton because I’m not sure the West is on the way down,” said Jonathan McDowell, space program historian and astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But it’s very clear Asia is on the way up.”

The accelerating pace being set by China signals how far it’s come since 1970, when scientists warned that too many Mao badges aboard the nation’s first East is Red satellite would impair orbiting.

Four years after the Asian giant became the third nation after the U.S. and Soviet Union to launch its own manned space flight, China last month announced a new, more powerful rocket. And in January, a Chinese missile successfully destroyed an aging weather satellite.

China, in keeping with its “peaceful rise” mantra, has downplayed any aggressive intent. “In the future we will see more cooperation with America than competition,” said Jiao Weixin, a professor at Peking University’s School of Earth and Space Sciences.

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The U.S. and European Union remain wary, however, particularly after January’s satellite-killer test and the large amount of space debris it generated.

“We’re very nervous about China’s capability to interfere with our own satellites in a period of tension or conflict,” said John Logsdon, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “It’s a pretty opaque society, and that applies to space as well.”

China has countered that all militaries are secretive, space debris is a global problem, and Moscow and Washington have conducted many similar tests over the years.

A closer look at Asia’s space balance sheet finds China the clear leader in manned space flight. Beijing also boasts the most extensive infrastructure, with three launch sites in place and a just-announced combined pad and theme park on the drawing board in southern Hainan island.

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Also working in China’s favor, said Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, is solid government backing, its pick of the nation’s scientists and close, if far from transparent, links with the military.

“But its poor relations with the United States in space is a major weakness,” Moltz added, relative to Japan and India, which enjoy far greater access to U.S. technology.

Japan is ahead of China in areas such as deep-space probes and robotics and enjoys a more focused, high-tech approach. But it suffers from relatively limited budgetary and popular support, and almost no help from the military.

“The importance of space had been declining for a long time,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a specialist in global space issues at Tsukuba University in Tokyo. “But with the Chinese taking new leadership in the region, a lot of politicians are asking why China can do all this with its technical limits, while Japan cannot capitalize on its technological advantage.”

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Japan’s space program has clawed back from management problems and several embarrassing failures, most recently in November 2003, when a rocket had to be destroyed after a booster failed 10 minutes into the flight.

“Some referred to it as the world’s most expensive fireworks display,” said James Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “At least you got a bang and a flash.”

Japan now has a relatively reliable launch system, but the program has had trouble attracting engineers given competition from other industries and a small pool of candidates because of the nation’s low birthrate.

India, meanwhile, has a strong grounding in earth sciences and engineering, an ambitious vision and programs that dovetail well with national development plans. But its program may not garner the budget needed to compete longer term with China, some analysts said.

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“China’s resources are 10 times more than us,” said Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. “Compared to the Chinese, we still have a long way to go.”

China and India see a robust space program as an essential step toward recognition as a global power.

“The space program is viewed as an essential prerequisite for India to be counted amongst the developed nations of the world,” said Ranjit Singh Nagra, a military expert.

China and India also are jockeying to garner a bigger slice of the estimated $2-billion commercial satellite market, in part by undercutting the price of U.S. and European launches.

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In addition, China’s Communist government sees its space program as a way to boost patriotism at a time of mounting corruption and social unrest.

“This helps bolster the legitimacy of the leadership, which is why they timed the latest launch for just after the recent party congress,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

Japan has been a more reluctant chest-thumper, in part because of the sensitivities of its World War II history in Asia and because it has placed more of its budget and energy into the cooperative International Space Station.

Luring Asian rivals deeper into the fray are real and promised economic benefits, in a part of the world where business drives dreams. Launching and operating communications satellites has led the way. “That’s where the system really pays off,” said Charles Vick, a senior fellow with GlobalSecurity.org.

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Further out, there are more elusive returns from space tourism, minerals and even energy derived from lunar helium. “The next template of space activities is going to be space mining,” said Lawrence Prabhakar, a professor at India’s Madras Christian College. “You have two rising powers deficient in basic resources. China and India will go to the ends of the earth, or the ends of space, to get them.”

Not everyone in China is happy about the space launch. Farmers who once lived within a 1 1/2 -mile radius of the Xichang site have been forcibly moved to the “Hongzhuan Relocation Spot” down the road, miles from their fields.

“This is a big headache,” said Tang Wenzhi, 32, trying to make ends meet with a makeshift French-fry business from a wok on the sidewalk. “The launches make the weather cloudy and polluted, which hurts our crops, and some of us have to walk three hours now just to tend them.”

Many of the residents add that they’ve grown rather blase about the launches. “There’s fire, smoke, the ground shakes, the windows rattle, some dogs howl,” said Song Yanyi, 52, owner of a small dry goods store. “But most of us don’t bother to go out and look. It’s clearer on TV.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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Magnier reported from Beijing, Wallace from Tokyo and Choudhury from New Delhi. Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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