China’s Space Program Takes a Seat at Annual Legislative Conclave

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As China’s rubber-stamp congress meets in Beijing, the nation’s space sector is scoring important political points.

BEIJING — China’s expanding space sector is scoring important political points for this year’s busy launch agenda now that 13 representatives from the ranks of government space agencies have been seated at the nation’s biggest annual legislative event.

The chief designer of China’s manned spaceflight and space station projects, Zhang Bonan, is among the sector’s high-profile delegates appointed to the National People’s Congress (NPC), which opened its 2013 session here March 5 in conjunction with the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Also picked through the Communist Party’s delegate selection system to serve at the annual NPC-CPPCC gathering, known as Lianghui (Chinese for “Two Meetings”) is veteran aerospace engineer Sun Jiadong, 84, best known as the architect of China’s Beidou satellite navigation system.

Zhang and Sun are first-time delegates to the NPC, which functions as a discussion forum and legislative rubber stamp for the central government’s yearly directives. CPPCC serves as an advisory body to the central government.

Each group has more than 2,000 delegates picked from a cross-section of Chinese society. They typically spend two weeks every March attending meetings, listening to speeches and speaking with the state-run press. Prominent delegates such as Zhang and Sun represent commercial, academic, military and government officialdom.

Other 2013 delegates from the space sector include executives and academics working for government agencies in charge of China’s Shenzhou manned spaceflight and Chang’e lunar robotics programs.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who steps down this spring after 10 years in office, delivered his final address to Lianghui delegates March 5. His successor, anointed by the party last fall, is Li Keqiang. Chinese President Hu Jintao likewise will be replaced this spring by Xi Jinping.

During the dual conclaves — which are closed to reporters — the space delegation plans to spotlight the government’s ongoing promotion of Beidou as an alternative to U.S. and European global positioning, timing and navigation systems, according to a March 1 report in China Space News, a state-run newspaper that publishes four times a week.

Delegates here also were expected to discuss closer military-commercial aerospace cooperation, as well as directing various space agency resources — including currently deployed satellites — toward combating China’s stubborn air pollution and food safety problems.

Zhang, Sun and the other aerospace delegates “not only will actively discuss ideas and proposals that reflect professional industry concerns, but at the same time they will seek to promote and publicize spaceflight power, and expanding the aerospace sector’s influence so that spaceflight can contribute more” to society, China Space News said.

Another Busy Year on Tap

China’s 19 successful launches in 2012 raised public and political interest in the nation’s ambitious space program. Landmark events included the Shenzhou 9 mission in June, which featured China’s first female astronaut and a docking with the Tiangong space station. Photos from an up-close look at an asteroid by the Chang’e 2 Moon probe were splashed across the front pages of Chinese newspapers in December.

More headline events are planned for coming months. The Shenzhou 10 manned mission is scheduled to launch between June and August, according to official media, and China’s first Moon landing mission is slated to begin with the launch next fall of the Chang’e 3 probe, which will carry a lunar rover. China hopes to put a man on the Moon after 2020.

Shenzhou 10’s mission will include a link-up with the now-orbiting Tiangong station as well as projects related to China’s under-development space shuttle program, the People’s Liberation Army Daily newspaper reported.

State media gave the aerospace bloc significant publicity during the run-up to the Lianghui sessions via widely published reports the week of Feb. 25 that the Chang’e 2 probe’s distance from Earth had passed the 20 million kilometer mark, and that testing of the Shenzhou 10’s cameras had been successfully completed.

On March 1, state-run CCTV television repeated news that was announced in other media months earlier that the Shenzhou 10 would launch sometime between June and August. The report was featured prominently on a nightly newscast.

Political support is considered critical for China’s space program at a time when top Beijing authorities have been calling on public agencies nationwide to tightly control spending, ban official perks such as entertainment budgets, and scrap “show” projects such as elaborate government buildings.

In connection with Wen’s speech, which focused on the nation’s slowing economic growth, Lianghui delegates received copies of a 2013 government “work report,” an annual rundown of the central government’s recent accomplishments and goals for the coming year, which praised the nation’s spirit of innovation and recent “breakthroughs” for China’s manned spaceflight, lunar exploration and Beidou satellite programs.