China's first manned space launch raises the question whether it will eventually join the international space station program or participate in other cooperative manned space ventures.
Human space flight is no longer the domain of just the United States and Russia, as it was for more than four decades. But now that the world's most populous nation has finally joined the club, what is the meaning for the future of international space relations?
Will the U.S. space agency NASA offer China a seat on a future space shuttle flight or invite it to dock with the international space station? Technically, the Shenzhou manned spacecraft, modeled after the Russian Soyuz capsule, is capable of attaching to the Russian segments of the space station.
Space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University says such decisions can be reached only at the highest political levels, not by space officials. But he is convinced that space competition is a thing of the past, even where China is concerned.
"I think the way forward is going to be collaboration," he said. "The rest of the world is collaborating, and China, by this very visible evidence of its space capability, will want to enter into those kinds of cooperative arrangements."
But two hurdles stand in the way of joint space ventures with China. First, if a space station linkup is the issue, China needs much more manned space experience to show that it is technically reliable. A second obstacle - at least to cooperation with the United States - is political. Washington wants to limit proliferation of missile technology that it fears could be used in weapons of mass destruction. It has charged two U.S. aerospace firms with sharing technology with Beijing, violating export controls. A recent comment by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher leaves little doubt that China's export of such technology hampers bilateral relations.
"There is an international control regime that we participate in, and that we have looked to China to apply," he said. "China said numerous times it would do so. Where we have found that China has not done so or Chinese firms have exported materials that would contravene China's own stated intentions, we have also imposed sanctions and restrictions under U.S. law, and will continue to follow our law."
But one U.S. Asian affairs expert believes the United States should be thinking about space cooperation with China. Dean Cheng of the Center for Naval Analysis, a private policy research organization near Washington, recalls that even during the Cold War in 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union managed an orbital rendezvous with their Apollo and Soyuz craft. He says Washington's relations with Beijing are at least as good as they were with Moscow then.
"The [Bush] administration has often said that U.S.-Chinese relations today are at the best level they have been since the normalization of relations in 1979," Mr. Cheng pointed out. "If that's true, then certainly there ought to be at least a potential there for U.S.-Chinese cooperation. The Chinese are going to be in space with a manned presence. It would behoove us to at least think through a policy response in that regard."
Many members of the U.S. Congress opposed including Russia in the international space station program in the early 1990s. But Russia's participation may have saved the project. Soyuz spacecraft and Moscow's rockets are the only way for crews and supplies to get to the outpost until U.S. shuttles return to flight after the Columbia disaster last February.
For the editor of the Internet website SpaceRef-dot-com based near Washington, Keith Cowing, including China in the station project would provide even more choices. "Suddenly you have more options in pricing and scheduling, and you could see the possibility that things that might have been difficult in a [bilateral] state might be a lot easier," he explained. "I don't know what that would be, whether you'd actually see the Chinese docking up there, but the more options you have, the more options you have."
For the moment, however, China has its own space goals, including developing its version of a space shuttle and a robotic mission to the moon by 2010.