Space biology and China: Rethinking the space age

Written  by Christine Y. L. Luk and Subodhana Wijeyeratne.

There is a tendency to view China’s space efforts as a mere replication of what the US and the former USSR accomplished decades ago. References to a “second Space Race” and “space militarization” abound in the press these days. But if we take a step back and look at China’s space program from a historical perspective, we can see that China’s space endeavors not only have a distinct trajectory, they are also driven by a different set of motivations. China’s biological experimentation in space behooves us to move away from the bi-polar Cold War narratives to one more in keeping with our multi-polar world.

Narratives of space and stellar exploration are permeated with names like Galileo and Copernicus. An obsession with the leading efforts of the US and its allies has pushed what are now considered the rather more mundane elements of space exploration – such as gunpowder rocketry – into the shadows. As a result, most efforts at space exploration by non-Europeans are often dismissed as mere attempts at catching up or the replication of Euro-American accomplishments.

What are the origins of space exploration in China? Although the interest in probing space is older than gunpowder, accurate accounts of human space exploration have only emerged recently. The story of Wan Hu, allegedly the first man who attempted to fly to the heavens with a rocket-propelled chair in the sixteenth century, is considered apocryphal and was most likely invented by an American children’s book writer. Yet behind the unproven anecdote of Wan Hu lies the centrality of the human factor in China’s space history. Unlike the Euro-American spacefaring history, in which technical interest in launch vehicles predate the biomedical interests in manned space operations, biology has always been a core concern in China’s space efforts.

However, even the briefest examination of the long history of space exploration in China shows that, although replication was no doubt part of the motivating narrative, China has its own distinct history when it comes to activities like spacefaring, and will no doubt have its own distinct future. There is nothing to say that historians of space exploration looking back 100 years from the future will not place as much emphasis on China’s solo efforts at space exploration as they will on Sputnik or Apollo.

Space Dogs

A particularly touching example of the distinct priorities of China’s space explorers can be found in the treatment of China’s first space dogs, Xiao Bao and Shan Shan. In contrast to Laika’s one-way journey (we now know that Laika died of overheating inside the capsule), early PRC engineers were committed to bringing both canines back to earth alive.

In 1966, as part of their biological sounding rocket programs, Chinese biophysicists decided it was time to attempt the launch and recovery of a large mammal in a sounding rocket. Although they had experienced previous successes with smaller animals such as rats, dogs held a special place in the imagination of space explorers. Indeed, the most famous of all cosmonauts was probably Laika. Yet from the onset, the Chinese would determine that their own canine taikonauts would not suffer the same tragic death as their Russian counterparts.

At the time, Laika was thought to have either died from asphyxiation or euthanasia. On the other hand, Xiao Bao and Shan Shan, who were respectively the first Chinese male and female dogs in space, were going to be brought back alive. This was exactly what the Chinese accomplished. Although some may argue that this is merely a replication of Russian efforts, the fact remains that it was both experimentally distinct and morally distinct – a point not lost on the biophysicists themselves. Shan Shan, however, met her own tragic death twelve years later (she was bitten to death by a bigger dog during the Cultural Revolution).

Heavenly Palace

Similarly, when faced with US opposition to joining the International Space Station, China turned its nominal isolation to its advantage. In constructing their own space stations, the Chinese exploration of the impact of long-term human habitation in space is uniquely its own. Furthermore, many of the biological experiments that run on these stations (such as the recent experiment involving silkworms and designed by Hong Kong secondary school students) have a distinctly Chinese flavor.

Although space observers often note that a considerable amount of China’s rocketry and space modules are in fact based on Russian designs, Tiangong 1 – the experimental precursor to the recently launched Tiangong 2 – is almost entirely an indigenous Chinese design. In fact, the Shenzhou launch vehicle itself, though based on Soyuz, is considerably larger and more functional.

Rather than understanding these as Chinese adaptations of foreign technologies, it would be more meaningful to understand them as stepping stones to an ambitious and entirely Chinese space station program. While the ISS will continue to develop in an international modular formation, China will follow Tiangong 2 up with Tiangong 3 in 2022. This is not a tale of Chinese exclusion; this is a tale of two different paths to establishing a permanent presence in orbit.

Multipolar Future

In short, China is not doing its own thing in space because it has no choice, but because some of its objectives and interests are different. Therefore, any attempts at explaining Chinese space efforts as catching up with the West makes as little sense as trying to understand Wan Hu in the context of Galileo. If we look to the future, there is nothing to suggest that historians of technology a hundred years from now will be as comfortable as we are at folding China’s spacefaring accomplishments in with the “more sophisticated” efforts of the West.

This is not an appeal to nationalism, but rather, an attempt to transcend it. Space exploration is a global effort: countries as diverse as India, Japan, Algeria, and Brazil invest heavily in the exploration of the stars, and each of these countries does this in their own distinctive way. Although there are technologies which are common to all, there are also points of departure that observers would do well to keep in mind. Just as China has its own space stations, India can get to Mars for a fraction of what the same trip costs the US. And just as Russia monopolizes human transport to space, private companies are now threating to break that monopoly.

Space exploration is not the story of two trailblazers and their myriad followers. There is no single part in space, and there is no single story to the space age.

Christine Y. L. Luk is a postdoctoral fellow at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. Her writings on the Chinese bio-rocketry program can be found in her book titled A History of Biophysics in Contemporary China (Springer, 2015). Subodhana Wijeyeratne is a graduate student at Harvard University. He is currently a research scholar at Tokyo University, pursuing a project on the history of rocketry in Japan. Image credit (cropped from original): CC by Justin Cowart/flickr.

2 replies »

  1. There is very little in China’s space program which is distinctly Chinese, or that has occurred as a result of native Chinese technological development. Qian Xuesen, the father of Chinese rocketry, was actually trained at MIT and gained experience in the U.S. Air Force before he defected back to China in the early 1950’s. In the 1990’s, the U.S. transferred space technology to China. Russia has also provided a massive amount of technical assistance to China. China always denies the contributions and importance of foreign assistance and technology transfer (or theft of) so that it can create a great narrative about the Chinese renaissance.

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