China will launch the first module of its own space station, the Tianggong-1, tomorrow. The launch was planned for early September, but has experienced technical problems and been delayed till the end of this month. What’s the significance of a successful launch? Can China’s endeavors to build a space station promote international cooperation? Global Times (GT
) reporter Yu Jincui talked to Jiao Weixin (Jiao
), a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences, Peking University, and Scott Pace(Pace
), a former NASA official and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, on these issues.
Why is China building its own space station?
There are three forms of manned space flight: manned spacecraft, space shuttles and space stations. The last form is the best for conducting scientific research in a microgravity environment, since space stations are relatively large, and can stay in space for over a decade. If we had only developed spacecraft but hadn’t built our own space station, it would have been meaningless to develop manned space flight.
What significance will a successful launch of the Tiangong-1 have on China’s space station program?
Building and maintaining a space station needs frequent spacewalks and space rendezvous and docking activities. The Tiangong-1 is a necessary step in China’s development and a demonstration of the rendezvous and docking skills needed to support a future space station.
Besides, China lacks experiences in space station design. We are not sure what scientific equipment should be used and whether the equipment could conduct scientific research under microgravity environment, so we should test over and over our technologies and equipment through the Tiangong space laboratory.
If the Tianggong-1 can be launched successfully, it will lay a solid foundation for the second step of China’s manned space flight strategy. And the following Shenzhou-8 rendezvous and locking with Tianggong-1 will be another milestone.
The International Space Station (ISS) will finish its mission by 2020. Some assume that China’s space station could assume the functions of the ISS then. Is it possible?
The initial period of the ISS operations should be completed by 2020 but the station could continue through 2028 or longer. I do not believe China’s space station will assume or replace the functions of the ISS. Technically, the ISS is larger, has more power, and can support a larger crew for scientific experiments. Just as important, the ISS is an international partnership and represents decades of close, working relationships among many countries which would be difficult to duplicate or change.
The Columbia disaster lengthened the completion time of the ISS, which lowered the international expectations. China’s space station will be finished by 2022, and coupled with scientific research experiences accumulated in the Tiangong laboratory, it will become a platform for international space cooperation. There are no other countries planning to build a space station except one US private company trying to establish one for space tourism. We welcome scientists from all over the world to cooperate with us in conducting scientific research.
Some countries ask whether China is starting a space race. Are such questions fair to China?
I don’t see the launch of Tiangong or China’s human space flight activities as part of a space race. It represents an evolutionary growth of China’s space capabilities that may create opportunities for international cooperation. It is China’s military space developments and official military writings that have created international concern over China’s intentions. In particular, program specifically oriented toward “counterspace” operations could increase tensions with other spacefaring states.
We have already become accustomed to such questions. Every time China develops some technology or some scientific research, the West always looks at us through tinted glasses. Many Western reporters who have interviewed me linked China’s manned space flight course to military applications. I just asked them a simple question in reply, “The ISS is built by 16 countries, which country’s military does it serve?” The criticisms over China’s space plan are groundless.
China’s manned space flight course has a rich scientific content and its objectives in every step have been carefully designed by many scientists. The so-called space race refers to the competition between the US and Soviet Union during 1957-75 in space activities such as developing satellites, manned space flights and lunar exploration. China has no intention to compete with the US. We just conduct limited space activities in accordance with our economic and technological level. The US is the only superpower in the aerospace field and no one could challenge it. China’s goals in building a space station are clear.
You both mentioned that China’s endeavor to build space station provides cooperative opportunities for China and the US, but it is also well-known that there is a lack of trust in transferring space technology to China. Should the US adopt a more cooperative stance toward China in space cooperation as it did with the ISS and Russia.
The decision to invite Russia to join the International Space Station was technically difficult to implement, but politically easy. Both sides wished to symbolize a new “post-Soviet” relationship and to utilize Russian space capabilities in a common effort. The decision to cooperate in space occurred after political understanding?was reached based on a changed geopolitical relationship.
The US-China relationship is a much friendlier one than was ever the case with the Soviet Union but the degree of trust necessary for human space flight cooperation is not yet present. I would be in favor of more scientific space cooperation with China. Topics such as space weather, Earth science, and biological research in space are a more practical place to start than human spaceflight. The partnership for the ISS is complete but I hope to see China working with other space-faring states in future human explorations.
International cooperation should be mutually beneficial. The Chandrayaan-1 launched by India equipped with the scientific instruments of NASA discovered a lot of water on the moon. No matter how advanced the instruments are, if there were no satellites, they will be useless. After the ISS stops work, China’s space station will be the only one.
If the US could provide us with high-level instruments, new scientific results will be achieved, which will benefit both sides. If the US keeps being suspicious of China, it will gain nothing but will stimulate our Chinese to strive harder to catch up the US.