SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Earlier today, China launched an historic space mission carrying that country's first female astronaut and a couple of male astronauts into space. The Shenzhou-9 spacecraft is on a 13-day trip. The mission is considered an important step toward China's goal of building a space station. We're joined now in our studios by Dean Cheng. He's a research fellow at the Asia Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Cheng, thanks for being with us.
DEAN CHENG: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: So what's the great leap upward here, if I can put it that way?
CHENG: Well, the great leap upward is basically reflecting China's sustained effort at space exploration. The Chinese space program is over 50 years old. It's always enjoyed support from the top Chinese leadership and we've watched it progress from first hesitant efforts to put satellites up to China now having the world's third navigation satellite system, weather satellites, and of course a manned space program.
SIMON: And a three person crew, as we mentioned, and certainly the first Chinese woman to go into space, 33-year-old Liu Yang. Help us understand the significance of her being up there.
CHENG: Well, as with the Soviets, the early inclusion of a woman in the manned effort is the reflection of political importance associated with space. Mao, of course, is said to - have said that women hold up half of the sky and now there's a Chinese woman up in the sky. But really, the larger point here is it's a reflection of the political support that China's space program has from the highest levels.
SIMON: Then help us understand how this mission fits in to the plans of Chinese leadership.
CHENG: Well, this particular mission is very important because it really shows - it is going to the opportunity for the Chinese to engage in manned docking maneuvers. And manned docking maneuvers are an essential part if you're going to build a space station. The Chinese have said that they want to do that by 2020.
If they are going to put a man on the moon, which the latest space white paper shows that they're starting the studies to do that. Any kind of sustained presence in space requires the ability to do docking. And so that's a key part of this mission. The other of course is that this is 13 days so you're going to have a lot of exposure to microgravity.
And, again, this is China's first really extended mission beyond a one or two day affair.
SIMON: And what does this mean to the people of China? Are people following it?
CHENG: Absolutely. China's space program is something that is a source of national pride. It's the sort of thing that we probably haven't seen since the 1960s. One of the spring water brands has on its later the official water of the Shenzhou space program.
CHENG: It's a little bit like Tang.
SIMON: I was just going to ask about Tang, which I haven't seen for a while. But, yeah.
CHENG: So. No, but it's not just that. There are advertisements at bus stands in Beijing for companies making sprockets and gears, that their products are a part of the Shenzhou program. The manned program in particular is essentially a statement of quality control. We are reliable enough that our astronauts depend on our products.
CHENG: It's obviously good enough for your factory, your cars, your plants.
SIMON: And, briefly, any dissident voices? As is it must be said we get any time there's attention in the space program of the United States saying, look, we have our own problems on Earth. Why should we (unintelligible)?
CHENG: Absolutely. There is, given particularly the disparities of wealth and other things, there are Chinese, particularly from poorer provinces and representing the billion or so who are much less advantaged in China, who are asking the real question. This is costing a lot of money. It is diverting a lot of human talents, engineers and the like. What are the Chinese people getting out of this?
SIMON: Well, Mr. Cheng, very good to talk to you. Thanks for coming in.
CHENG: Thank you.
SIMON: Dean Cheng is a research fellow at the Asia Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
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SIMON: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.