On October 15 China is planning to launch its first astronaut into orbit. If successful, the mission of the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft would make Beijing a world-class space power. But experts are divided over how much China’s manned space efforts would help it militarily.

China has been mastering space technology since the 1950s and launched its first satellite in 1970. Since then, it has been developing a space program with growing military capabilities, including long and short range nuclear missiles and communications, navigation, and reconnaissance satellites.

“The Chinese space program is an outgrowth of their missile technology development effort,” said Dean Cheng, an Asian affairs specialist at the Center for Naval Analysis, a private policy research organization near Washington. “Mao Zedong pushed for [missile] development in the 1950s. Once [China] had constructed a missile, it began to devote more significant resources towards developing satellites, and set a series of markers, including being only the fifth country to launch its own satellite into orbit and the third country to develop a space-based reconnaissance system.”

Why has Beijing been so aggressive in its space program? A U.S. Air Force expert on China, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Stokes, says a major incentive is its desire for military superiority over Taiwan.

“Space assets, as well as countering the U.S. use of space, or other countries’ use of space are important force multipliers that can help to even the playing field, when you are going up against a technologically superior adversary,” he said. “Space assets, I believe, will play a major role in any future use of force against Taiwan, and preventing foreign intervention in a Taiwan scenario.”

But does China’s manned space program enhance its military prowess? Experts agree that it does, but they differ on how much.

At a recent discussion at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy analysis institute, Colonel Stokes said an unmanned Shenzhou capsule launched last year had a significant electronic intelligence capability. In addition, he says, the manned program will lead to more sophisticated spacecraft with military potential, such as a space shuttle, a space station and an airplane that can reach orbital altitudes – an aerospace plane.

“China is serious in investing in these things,” said Colonel Stokes. “The space shuttle, in particular, and the aerospace plane, in particular, have significant military applications in the future. So, one has to look at this simply as a stepping stone for a longer-range program to make them a significant player in military space in the future.”

Military applications for manned Chinese spacecraft could include the in-orbit launch and repair of military space vehicles, just as the U.S. space shuttle has deployed an undisclosed number of secret military satellites, and astronauts have maintained the Hubble telescope.

But Heritage Foundation analyst Larry Wortzel says Beijing’s manned space program would provide only marginally better military capabilities than the other space hardware it has.

“They already have so many other programs to weaponize and militarize space that would be more effective in a shorter time,” he said. “I would rather see them go ahead with the manned space program, and use the money on that, because I think, in the near term, it makes the United States, Taiwan and Japan safer.”

Dean Cheng of the Center for Naval Analysis agrees that the Shenzhou spacecraft series has a limited military utility. He argues that its main purpose is not for war.

“A manned program, as we saw with [the U.S. space shuttle] Columbia, holds the potential for tragedy, and is a remarkably fragile capability for arguably a marginal benefit. I think that the primary considerations are, instead, prestige and economics. It says to the world that “we are now an advanced nation,” he said.

As Mr. Cheng puts it, the space frontier is now open to dragons.