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China has big plans for its space program


A rocket launched last week in China that shot three astronauts into orbit, took place while Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Beijing. Now, the timing was probably a coincidence. China's launch schedule is set far in advance and usually is not focused on the diplomatic calendar. But as NPR's John Ruwitch reports from the launch site in the Gobi Desert, the mission was a reminder that Beijing has big plans.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Outside the launch center living quarters of the three astronauts who are about to walk out and start their journey skyward, a flag-waving crowd was assembled to see them off.

It's almost like a carnival atmosphere here. I'm standing outside where these three astronauts are going to come out in spacesuits before they get on a bus and are taken off to the rocket and then get into their capsule. People are just excited.

And then the three men emerged, waving and smiling.


RUWITCH: The space program is a huge point of pride for China and much more. In this propaganda clip from early 2013, Chinese leader XI Jinping, who had just taken office, describes how he sees its significance.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: "A country's level of high-tech achievement in aerospace is a sign of its overall level of tech prowess," he says. "And it's a sign of economic strength, national strength and military strength." This mission, called Shenzhou 18, will be focused mostly on maintenance and scientific experiments, according to officials at the China Manned Space Agency. In one, they'll try to create a closed ecological system with zebrafish and algae. Zhang Wei, a space technology and engineering expert at the Chinese Academy of Science, explains.

ZHANG WEI: (Through interpreter) We hope that through this research, we can understand the interaction between these plants and animals in space so that in the future, when we understand it, we can establish a large-scale ecosystem.

RUWITCH: A self-sustaining, large ecosystem that he says they hope can support humans for long periods in space. And that's right in line with China's outsized ambitions. It plans to put people back on the moon by the end of the decade, and then set up an international research station there. Beijing says its crewed space program is peaceful, but that's just one part of its space drive.


STEPHEN WHITING: The People's Republic of China has moved breathtakingly fast in space.

RUWITCH: That's General Stephen Whiting, head of the U.S. Space Force. He outlined for reporters last week some of the ways China is enhancing its military capabilities with space-related developments. And he said they're keeping an eye on its lunar plans.


WHITING: Those appear to be exploratory and scientific on the surface, but the Chinese aren't very transparent with what they do in space. And so, you know, we hope there's not a military component to that.

RUWITCH: The U.S. still has a big lead in most areas of space exploration and development. It operates more than two-thirds of all space assets, like satellites, for instance. But Svetla Ben-Itzhak, a space security expert at Johns Hopkins University, says that dependence on space, plus China's lack of transparency and growing tension between the two countries, is leading both to assume the worst of each other. It's a question of trust she says.

SVETLA BEN-ITZHAK: A question of trust, and trust must be gained through verification - right? - and sort of communication. And that is not there right now.


RUWITCH: Bringing foreign reporters to the launch center, about a thousand miles west of Beijing, may help a little. During our visit, though, security was tight. We were not free to move about on our own, and we're only able to see and hear what the government wanted us to. I tried to ask a young observer at the astronauts' sendoff what he thought of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: How are you?

JO MIAO: I'm fine, thank you.

RUWITCH: What's your name?

JO: My name is Jo Miao (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: "You can't do interviews," a guard says. Moments later, we were hustled back onto a bus for the main event, the rocket launch...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: ...Which was something they definitely wanted us to see and hear.


RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in western China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAKE SONG, "FALLING BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.