Space Programme

The new space race

Should US worry about Sino space station?

Wang Yaping: first lady astronaut?

When Tiangong-1, China’s first space laboratory, blasted successfully into the skies on the evening of September 29, Chinese state TV serenaded the achievement with a stirring instrumental rendition of America the Beautiful, the “second national anthem” of the United States.

It was a strange choice, like NASA choosing to mark the launch of a space programme to a background of Ode to the Motherland, China’s own unofficial national anthem (formal ceremonies require that March of the Volunteers is played).

Was it through ignorance or by design that CCTV selected this emotive piece of music?

Conspiracy theorists were soon outlining psycho-ops intended to unsettle the United States at a time when NASA’s own space shuttle programme is winding down. The Tiangong-1 launch paves the way for China’s first space station, set to open in 2020. And with plans to close the International Space Station in the same year, that could leave China as the only nation with astronauts looking down from space.

Officials haven’t offered an explanation for the song choice. The best that the Guardian newspaper could get from the spokesperson at CCTV was “I don’t know how to answer your question… I cannot help you.”

Microbloggers, as ever, were much quicker to offer an opinion. “Who says Chinese people don’t have a sense of humour!” noted one user of weibo (China’s Twitter equivalent). Another was much less amused. “What a disgrace,” he fumed. “Which illiterate chose that music? We just lost face, and lost it to America.”

“Who was the ‘black hand’ behind CCTV’s broadcast of America the Beautiful?”, thundered a third. “This is treason. Without background support, no one would dare do it.”

Premier Wen Jiabao and Central Discipline Inspection Commission boss He Guoqiang (he has the exhausting responsibility of chasing down corrupt officials) travelled to Jiuquan in the far west to watch the launch firsthand, while the rest of the Politburo Standing Committee watched from the Space Command Centre in Beijing.

Did a spluttering of peanuts and mineral water result as America the Beautiful came on or instead some knowing nods and winks?

The launch of Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1, is China’s latest step in space since the Shenzhou-1 rocket lifted off in 1999. Tiangong-1 will now practice docking with the unmanned Shenzhou-8, which will be launched next month. Then there will be trials with the manned modules Shenzhou-9 and 10 in 2012. Eight years after that, China expects to have a 60-tonne, manned space station in orbit.

Or should that be “womanned”?

Of the seven people selected for taikonaut training last year, two were women, according to Chinese media reports. Wang Yaping, 33, a military pilot from Yantai in Shandong province, is widely tipped for one of the early space station missions. Tiangong-1 is expected to orbit for two years, and during that time a female astronaut could be part of the team docking from Shenzhou-10, according to media reports.

Wang, reportedly the daughter of farmers, impressed her bosses at a PLA Air Force unit with a series of emergency flights during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And if she does make it into space, it will meet demands made by the All-China Women’s Federation that the space programme foster female talent, Chinese media noted rather solemnly. (Neil Armstrong’s talk of small steps for man but giant leaps for mankind clearly affronted Federation members.)

Meanwhile, CCTV watchers have gone back to pondering the significance of the playing of America the Beautiful last week. Here is the first verse, with words penned by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893:

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain!

America! America!

God shed His grace on thee,

And crown thy good with

brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!


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