Thursday, May 5, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 3

Shugang and Other Disasters
Beijing Opera singer
Jiang Ying, Qian's wife

April is a very cold month in Beijing, and the Jingxi Hotel had no heating.  Guards stood outside, shivering, while inside 400 delegates ate astronaut food through tubes and decided that they would lean on American and Russian technology for inspiration. This was in 1971, five years after the Cultural Revolution, but on the tail of their successful satellite launch. The experts, called in from across the country, were in good humor and admired the mock-up of the newest manned-space craft, though it was only made out of wood and cardboard. They named their newest program Project 714 or Shuguang, meaning Dawn in Mandarin.
They began the pilot selection process. The Russians, some argued, took shortcuts by cutting the selection pool to fighter pilots. This would save time. But the Americans, said others, considered only the most qualified fighter pilots, and so we should do the same. And, of course, the candidates should be politically motivated, no taller than 5’7, and no older than 38.
They narrowed it down to nineteen astronauts (or taikonauts as they are called by some of the press, or yuhangyuan as they are called officially but rarely by any Westerner that doesn’t want to embarrass themselves). All of them had stellar records and interesting histories. Among the potential spacemen were the few Chinese pilots who had shot at American planes, mostly in the airspace around the Vietnam-Chinese boarder. One, Fang Guojun, spoke passionately of the time when the People’s Liberation Army used his school as a barracks, and the committee loved him. Preparation began, and several committee members left for Sichuan Province to find a new launch site, ideally somewhere in the mountains, isolated and quiet.
The decision makers, however, had little to work with. Program 714 had only 7 officials, a phone and a jeep. Qian refused to complain about the lack of funding.
They took the pilots for training, but didn’t tell them anything, and fed them only steamed bread for lack of money. Due to the secrecy of the program, the government left them alone and pretended that they weren’t there. Members allegedly had trouble arranging for test flights of even the most average aircraft on military airfields. They began to complain.
Finally, someone spoke out. After asking Mao for more funding, the Chairman always replied that the members and trainees had no grit, and he finally told an envoy sent to meet him that terrestrial matters come first. And, like that, the program ended, again, and the pilots were sent home. Qian sat, wondering. This was 1972.
But basic preparations continued, and in 1975 they launched a recoverable satellite that successfully reentered the atmosphere. Scouts were sent to nearby mountains to look for the returning satellite as it parachuted back down. They waited and waited. Eventually, a small group of miners in Guizhou province—a few hundred miles east—watched terrified as something fell from the sky and crashed into a tree while they ate lunch. They approached the wreckage slowly, and threw a few rocks. When they heard the rocks hit and knew it was metal, they were less worried. Though they never understood what exactly it was.
Qian was aging, watching his space program make significant but gradual achievements. The Americans and Russians made brilliant progress in just a few years, but the Chinese always made short spurts, lost something (usually money, support), and then argued, went to a Beijing hotel, or just waited. In 1976, Chairman Mao died. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took office and slowly began reforming the economy, taking the first steps that led to its free-market capitalist system of present.
In 1981, the US began testing its space shuttle—the iconic spacecraft that looks like a killer whale and lands like a plane upon reentry. It is also, at the time of this writing, on its penultimate flight.
There was a great deal of internal arguing, but they were getting closer to a resolution and solid plan. Deng was not always helpful, siting how unlikely it was that any Chinese astronaut would enter space in his lifetime. But nonetheless China began to speak with the UN, signing space treaties and minimally participating in conversation.
In 1984, President Reagan offered to send a Chinese astronaut into space, but the Party said they were uninterested. Deng Xiaoping stepped down. Qian began to promote scientific investigation of traditional Chinese medicine, and no one heard anything for a long time.

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