After astronauts (USA), cosmonauts (Russia) and spationauts (France), you’ll have to add a new word for the Chinese evading the earth’s gravity: taikonauts.
So, while you may have thought that the guys circling the earth in a cramped habitat were all doing the same job, they all seem to mind a different business: Americans navigate the stars (coherent with their flag), Russians navigate the Universe (sligthly grandiose) and French navigate space (lofty endavour). Chinese don’t navigate, they claim origin: taikonaut means literally “man from big space”.
Besides just planning to hang out there, the mastering of sending a man into space really establishes China as a space power. The initial claims that the Chinese technology was a mere copy of Russia’s space programs seems increasingly doubtful. While both countries signed a strategic partnerships, all Chinese satellites are thought to be of dual use (civilian and military). Recall also that Beijing recently conducted an anti-satellite test, launched a lunar probe and just announced detailed plans to build a new rocket with enough power to put a space station into orbit, raising fresh questions about whether it aims to compete or collaborate with the other space powers.
Plans are to put a robot on the moon in 2012 and have a «moonaut» by about 2020. Beijing is already working towards a Chinese GPS. In other words it has the ambition to be present in both the terrestrial orbit and the exploration domains. Already 30 satellites have been sent into space (9 of them in 2007) and a fourth launching pad is being built.
Let’s hope that, like for the Olympics, the spirit is to participate and not to win…