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A Place for One's Mat: China's Space Program, 1956-2003

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Although China has become only the third country to place a human being in orbit, little of the history of the Chinese space program has been written in English. Of the handful of books on the subject, two slim volumes stand out: The Chinese Space Program, by Joan Johnson-Freese; and China’s Space Program, by Brian Harvey. These books are important, early efforts to document the history of China’s space program by focusing on things we can observe from afar--namely, the satellites China has placed in orbit. These books provide a solid background on the technical realities of China’s program, particularly in a comparative context. Although they are therefore necessary to understand the Chinese space program, they are not sufficient. What they lack is an explanation from the Chinese themselves about the decisions that they made and their motivations for becoming a spacefaring nation.

Fortunately, we now have available a significant amount of Chinese-language historical material that documents the decisions that shaped China’s space program and provides an explanation--from a Chinese perspective--of their motivations. Where Harvey and Johnson-Freese had to make do with the occasional article by a Chinese scientist in an obscure publication like the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, scholars now have access to many Chinese-language histories of the program as well as access to the participants themselves.


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