Mangya, China – In an uninhabited area of the Chinese province of Qinghai, two people walk out of a tent into a landscape that resembles a planet from outer space under a sometimes sepia sky.
With bulky, worn-out space suits, they begin to oscillate through the barren field. Behind it is a sign that says “Sea Camp” and at the top of the field is a Chinese flag.
Located in the extreme northwestern region of China, the land of Qinghai is dominated by deserts and landforms of Yardang (sand-colored rocks and mother rock surfaces formed by wind erosion), similar to Mars.
The only signs that this may not be the Red Planet are all-terrain vehicles carrying dozens of tourists and photographers consciously taking portraits of visitors in Martian form.
The Qinghai camp has attracted tens of thousands of tourists who want to live their space dreams since it opened two years ago and is one of at least half a dozen that have been established across the country.
“We’ve always been interested in Mars and we didn’t even think about it when we found out there was a camp on Mars in Qinghai,” said Zou Xin’ang, who drove seven hours with his family to get to the camp.
From the box office success of Wandering Earth, a space-themed Chinese science fiction film, to live streams of rocket launches, the people of China are increasingly fascinated with outer space.
Behind the growing interest is the Chinese government’s own ambition.
The most populous country in the world did not begin a manned space program until 1992, decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States, when the government passed legislation to formally initiate manned space missions.
But despite the relatively late start date, progress has been rapid.
The country sent its first taikonaut – a term derived from the Chinese word taikong (meaning “space” or “cosmos”) – into space in 2003 and placed its first time module in orbit in 2011.
In a more symbolic and significant step, the independently designed and assembled basic space station (CSS) module, called Tianhe (“Heavenly Harmony” in Chinese), was was successfully launched into orbit last month. The core module provides astronauts with accommodation and a central control station, and with a few more missions over the next two years to install the remaining elements of the station, CSS is expected to be fully operational by 2022.
China was excluded from China International Space Station, which is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the European Union, so CSS is an opportunity for the world’s second largest economy to extend its influence to the skies.
China sees CSS as a hub for future scientific experiments, including a long-awaited Hubble-class space telescope with a field of view 300 times larger than the Hubble telescope, according to state media.
A little further from the galaxy, China is preparing to land its own Rover Zhurong on the red planet sometime this month.
If successful, and the landing is notoriously treacherous, China will become only the second country, after the United States, to deploy a rover to Mars. The Soviet Union almost achieved the feat, but after launching a soft landing, its lander failed to run 110 seconds later.
Improved “soft” power
Beijing’s space ambitions were set out in a white paper in 2016.
He wanted to “turn China into a space power in all aspects,” he said, effectively challenging U.S. domination.
In his congratulatory speech after the success of the Tianhe launch, President Xi Jinping also made it clear that improving the country’s space program was a “major strategic step that would determine China’s future development.”
The gradual but steady increase in China’s space power, while lacking the intensity of the race between the United States and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, has raised questions about competition with the United States in as relations between the two countries on Earth deteriorate to a lower level in years.
In the United States, with Taiwan and the South China Sea emerging as potential flashbacks, some are concerned that China may take advantage of its space advances to aid its military development.
“The United States is primarily concerned with China’s military space power,” he told Al Jazeera Lincoln Hines of Cornell University, whose work focuses on China’s space policy. “It could deny the advantage of the United States in a context of conflict.”
Still, one can still question how the Chinese space program will tip the balance of power between the U.S. and China, and experts have warned not to exaggerate China’s space capabilities.
China is currently requesting space partnerships with several countries, including Germany and Russia, with which it has signed an agreement to lunar space station In March.
The Tianhe itself will be smaller than the current ISS, which will be withdrawn in 2024 unless joint sponsors decide otherwise.
The useful life of the station, about 10 years, as indicated by the main Chinese CSS architect Zhu Zongpeng, is also significantly shorter than that of the ISS, and China was also criticized for allowing the remains of the Long March rocket 5B which brought the central module into space. falling back to the ground in an uncontrolled descent.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement after his re-entry that it was “clear that China does not meet responsible standards with regard to its space debris ”.
“It’s not exactly clear what China could get tangibly with this, other than exert a stronger soft power,” Hines said. “However, by investing large funding in the space program, Beijing also runs the risk of lowering its gains in other domains.”
Still, the target audience for the Chinese space program may not even be in the United States, but closer to home.
Space successes have further provoked national pride among the country’s citizens, from the thousands heading to the space camp to those discussing developments in the virtual world.
“We will build a space station on our own – this is an incredible success for the Chinese,” a passionate netizen commented on Weibo shortly after the launch of Tianhe.