China may soon be the third country with a crewed space program. Industry experts believe that the Chinese--thanks to new plans to collaborate with cash-strapped Russian space scientists--will be able to send their first cosmonauts into space by the turn of the century.
According to recent reports in the Russian news media, the Chinese are seeking help from the Russian Space Agency (RKA) to kick-start a national crewed space-flight program. Last October, eight to 10 Chinese cosmonauts arrived at Star City, Russia's space-training center outside Moscow, says Phillip Clark, editor of Jane's Space Directory, an annual report on the industry. "Officially, nothing was announced," he says. However, Clark says, it appears that two cosmonauts are training for an 8-day Soyuz mission to the space station Mir in 1998, while the rest are getting training geared toward China's own program.
The Russia connection is China's latest attempt to revive its struggling 15-year-old crewed program, says John Pike, space policy director at the Federation of American Scientists. China's heavy-duty "Long March" rockets have blown up several times, and the Chinese have been tight-lipped "in accounting for what went wrong," Pike says. However, industry experts predict that Chinese technical advances--coupled with Russian expertise--will help to rapidly clear up the Long March's service record, enabling the first crewed flights around the year 2000.
Cash seems to be the main force driving the Russian participation. "When the Chinese fly to Mir, they will pay for the privilege," says Clark. RKA Director-General Yuri Koptev told the Russian news service Novosti that the two countries plan to ink contracts early next year for a joint Mir mission.