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THE Chinese trace their space program back to the 13th century, when they combined newly invented gunpowder with silk kites to make primitive missiles. Now, centuries later, China's rocketing technology is attracting new attention in the West; aerospace firms are turning to China to launch their commercial satellites. Last week, for instance, the China Great Wall Industry Corporation signed an agreement to launch a communications satellite for Teresat Inc. of Houston.

As anyone who has not been in orbit himself lately surely knows, this has not been a good season for NASA. The French, too, whose Ariane has been an alternative to NASA for launching satellites, suffered the failure of one of their rockets on its launch pad late last year.

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Hence the interest -- not quite a stampede -- in the modest but hitherto reliable Chinese program. If this sudden dearth of competition has been a ``lucky break'' for the Chinese, though, it is one they have been preparing for over many years. The Chinese are deservedly proud of their (largely) home-grown expertise. And they are offering bargain prices. The going rate for a spaceward boost on Ariane is $25 million-plus; for a NASA launch, $30 million. A Chinese contract to launch a satellite for a Swedish company -- pending technical studies -- was reported to bear a price not much above $10 million. We suppose this makes this undertaking of the People's Republic a sort of People Express of outer space.

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