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Will China Blast Past America In Space?


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Last week, China launched its Shenzhou spacecraft into orbit, carrying three taikonauts, one of whom was a woman, China's first female astronaut. A few days later, the spaceship crept up on the Tiangong space lab in orbit and docked with it, making China one of only three countries to have pulled off such a feat after the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

And just one more triumph for the Chinese space program, it's really amazing, as it ticks off one goal after another as part of its 30-year program for space exploration. It's called Project 921. So what's next, a Chinese space station, a moon landing, Mars?

Here in the U.S., almost every person has announced some grand vision for space, George W. Bush's moon mission, for example, only to have the plan scrapped by the next president. China, on the other hand, sets a 30-year plan for space and sticks with it. So is China poised to surpass everyone in space, including the Indians, with a clear, long-term vision?

What do you think? Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also go to sciencefriday.com to get into a discussion there.

Jonathan McDowell is the author of Jonathan's Space Report. He's an expert on the space program. He's also an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


FLATOW: You're welcome. Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, that's in Newport, Rhode Island. She joins us. Welcome to - welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Johnson-Freese.


FLATOW: Jonathan McDowell, we're all familiar with the terms Apollo and Soyuz and Mir and space station. Now we're going to start learning things like taikonaut and Shenzhou and Tiangong? Should we get used to that?

MCDOWELL: Absolutely. The Chinese are really ramping up their space program, and I've just been discussing with some Chinese friends the nuances of translating these strange words that we'll have to get used to.

FLATOW: Why do you think that is? They keep talking about a 30-year plan. They talk about going to the moon. They talk about going to Mars. Are these serious plans, or are they just a lot of talk?

MCDOWELL: Well, it's a mixture, I think. The Chinese space program was very measured for many years. They launched one satellite a year for a long time. And then about 10 or 15 years ago, they decided to really ramp up, and this year they've launched more satellites than any other country so far. So it's been a dramatic increase.

But when they talk about plans to land astronauts on the moon, at this stage that's really at the paper study stage, and I think it will be another five years before they make a serious decision to go beyond Earth orbit.

FLATOW: Dr. Johnson-Freese, what is China's primary motivation? When we went into space, it was political, it was military.

JOHNSON-FREESE: China, like many other countries, including many European countries and Japan, basically saw the United States and the then-Soviet Union getting so far ahead in technology that they were afraid they were going to be left behind. Space technology is basically information technology in many instances, and it's critical in a globalized world. So China wanted to make sure that there wasn't this technology gap that it couldn't catch up to.

FLATOW: Why build your own stuff, I mean, and start, like, reinventing the wheel? Why can't China just hire people from private contractors who have built, let's say, the Saturn 5 or the Titan rocket go - call up Boeing or Northrop-Grumman and order something from them instead of having to sort of reinvent everything?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, in the 1980s, China was coming out of the Mao era, and they were very closed. It was a very closed society. And by the time they came out of that, there was quite a reluctance in the West to work with them. No one knew how, no one knew what their intentions were.

So in 1992, they initiated this 30-year, three-step program that they are now in the middle of, and they did work with whoever would work with them. They actually bought quite a bit of equipment, life-support equipment in particular, from the Russians.

But they were left to do an indigenous program because there was a great reluctance from the West.

FLATOW: And in fact isn't there a prohibition in America from the U.S. cooperating with China in Space?

JOHNSON-FREESE: There are legislative prohibitions for bilateral cooperation between NASA and China. There are some multilateral cooperative projects going on and discussions, but right now, legislatively, NASA cannot work with China.

FLATOW: Jonathan McDowell?

MCDOWELL: Yes, I think the - this is a real issue right now because while it does make sense for the United States to be a little protective of some of its advanced technology, really we're losing an opportunity to work closely with the Chinese, and this blanket ban sort of goes against the scientists' natural tendency to walk to talk to each other in this very international and globalized world.

But I think that the Chinese are - you know, would like to work with us, but in fact, given that we're not willing to, they're going to just push ahead, and you see Tiangong, it's not the International Space Station, but it's all-Chinese. They are going step by step, and they are slowly catching up.

FLATOW: But wouldn't it be to our advantage, you know, to work with them, and this way we're close to them and know what they're doing?

JOHNSON-FREESE: I certainly think it is. If you believe that we need to work more with China, and we need to understand how they work, then it makes sense. If you believe that Chinese is a potential near-peer competitor or potential enemy, then the adage, you know, keep your friends closer and your enemy closer comes to mind. So yes, I think we are losing major opportunities in many different areas, including national security.

MCDOWELL: Right, and I think...

FLATOW: Where does this ban come from, Jonathan?

MCDOWELL: Well, it comes from Congress, and I think there's a - it's a very easy card to play, to make people afraid of China. I think China, you know, is both a national security competitor and an economic competitor. But I think there's also a lot of miscommunication between the United States and China.

When you actually go and talk to the Chinese, they are a little bewildered at the idea that they pose a danger to the United States. So I think the more we communicate, the less the tensions will be.

JOHNSON-FREESE: I agree, and I think I would also point out that at this point, the Chinese do want to work with the United States very much, but there are a considerable number of their space scientists, especially in the manned program, who feel that their program is going along quite well right now, and working with the United States could jeopardize their program because we have a reputation of being difficult to work with.

And I think the International Space Station partners would attest to that, that sometimes working with the United States, you have to be prepared for U.S. dominance.

FLATOW: Is it true that they have a two-track program, one is for manned space flight and another is for robotic space flight or going to the moon or Mars with probes?

MCDOWELL: Well, the manned space program is bureaucratically under the People's Liberation Army, whereas the research program, like the lunar probe program, is organized under a more civilian aegis. But that's really a bureaucratic issue rather than there being a true military aspect to the Shenzhou program.

FLATOW: Let's talk about realistically where they might be headed. Let's look at the next five years. Jonathan, you said that they might be able to have their own space station in the next five years?

MCDOWELL: Right, well, we've been arguing about whether Tiangong counts as a space station. It's really - I've called it a dwarf space station. It's got some of the properties. Very soon, maybe next year, they'll launch Tiangong 2, which will be like the Russian (unintelligible) that went up in the '70s that's more of a serious space laboratory.

But they've said that what they really want to do is something more along the lines of perhaps not the International Space Station but something much more ambitious in the early part of the next decade, and I think that's well within their capabilities if they can get their much-delayed new rocket to fly.

And they've been talking about a much bigger rocket for many years now, and it still hasn't made an appearance. So I think that's the key pacing item for them in doing something more ambitious.

JOHNSON-FREESE: In the 30-year plan that they laid out in '92, that large space station was always the culminating point. It wasn't the moon. It was first demonstrating human space flight, which they've done, second demonstrating more advanced spaceflight capabilities like maneuvering and docking, which is where they are now, and that includes Tiangong.

But the third step is clearly this large space station that Jonathan was referring to that they simply are not able to launch until the Long March 5 launcher comes online.

FLATOW: Which would be when?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, it's in development, but it's already behind schedule. So I think it's somewhere in the next 10 years.

FLATOW: The International Space Station is scheduled to retire in 2020. Would we expect those two to sort of dovetail one another?

JOHNSON-FREESE: It could very well be that the Chinese space station will replace the International Space Station as the permanently manned orbiting spacecraft.

FLATOW: How is this going to sit with - let's say you look at Congress 10 years now. If the Chinese have a space station, the U.S. no longer is orbiting in the space station, it's not invited to go to a Chinese space station, let's say, or is not allowed to have anything to do with the Chinese space program, are we going to see, do you suspect, some reversal in Congress saying where the heck are we, why were we left out of these things?

JOHNSON-FREESE: I think you're exactly right. I think there will be a loud cry of how did this happen. But you already see members of Congress try to use the Chinese space program as an impetus to get more money for the U.S. space effort, but it's very difficult to do manned spaceflight in a democracy because while we all like spaceflight, we like watching it, when it comes to funding from government funds, it simply doesn't get the priority that things like jobs and roads and education and defense gets.

In China, they have an authoritarian government that can keep funding it to whatever level they choose, as long as they choose to do it, and they will do that as long as they get successful results from it.

FLATOW: But the Soviets had the same kind of government, and we were in a race with them.

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, I don't think we're in a race with China right now. I think there's a space race going on; it's in Asia, potentially between China and India and maybe even Japan and Korea weighing in. But China is trying to catch up to where we were in the '60s, and I don't see that as a race unless we place ourselves in it deliberately, which I don't think would be a good idea.

MCDOWELL: And you have to understand that the U.S. space program, the funding for it, hasn't decreased. We're still doing a lot of stuff in space, it's just not - we're not flying the shuttle, we may not continue the space station beyond the 2020s. But NASA will be out there doing things, and so I'm actually not so concerned that we'll be seen as being behind.

I agree with Joan, though, what - the thing to watch is in Asia. It's what will the Indians do in response to this?

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a short break, and when we come back, we'll talk lots more with Joan Johnson-Freese and Jonathan McDowell, our number 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri. We'll be talking more about Chinese in space. Stay with us; we'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about China's space program, whether there is a space race that the Americans are not in, one that is going on in Asia. My guests are Jonathan McDowell, author of Jonathan's Space Report; Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

While I have two space experts here, I cannot pass up the opportunity to ask both of you, or at least ask John first, can you tell us about the secret U.S. space plane that just landed, the X-37B? It reminds me of the old lifting body...

MCDOWELL: It's halfway between a lifting body and a proper space shuttle. It does have little stubby wings. It's a robot space plane. It's about five tons, so it's - you know, compared to the shuttle's 100 tons, it's a much smaller thing. It's not designed to carry astronauts, but it's a sweet piece of technology.

And they kept in orbit for a little over a year. It went up in March of 2011 and just came down, landing automatically, completely automatically on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

And this is part of the space - Air Force space program that was run out of - partly Wright Patterson Air Force Base and partly a thing called the Rapid Capabilities Office at the Pentagon, which is sort of separate from the rest of the Air Force space program, which is mostly run out of the aerospace industry on the West Coast.

So it's a new thing that the Air Force are doing, and people are very puzzled about the motivations behind it and whether it's going to lead to some real operational capability.

FLATOW: Joan, can you shed light on what it actually does and what it's for?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, you know, Ira, I've answered a lot of questions this week on what is Tiangong for and what is the X-37B for. And the answer to both is they are both technology testbeds that I think, in the case of the Air Force with the X-37B and the case of Tiangong with the Chinese, they are trying to see the capabilities of the vehicles and how they can best use them.

And I think, you know, it's like a taking a car for a test drive. It would be hard to say exactly what it will be used for. I'm sure there are many sensors on the X-37B, and I am sure the Air Force is trying to see which ones work best, which ones yield the best results or the most useful data, and I don't think there is a specific mission assigned to either yet.

They're really kind of playing with the technology to see what they can get out of it, and personally I think that's a good thing.

FLATOW: The fact that it was - did it not set a record for how many - it was up over a year in orbit there?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Yes, I think that was the Air Force trying to see, you know, how far could they push that technology envelope.

MCDOWELL: The impression I got was definitely that they carry some payload for some other customers, perhaps the National Reconnaissance Office, that was a test payload, and it worked so well that the customer said, oh, we want to use this camera operationally. Can we keep it up for longer? And that's why it probably stayed up so long. That's my guess.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking about China and space and a little bit of American space here. Douglas in Warren, Michigan. Hi, Douglas.


FLATOW: Hi there.

DOUGLAS: Am I on the radio right now?

FLATOW: You're on the radio right now.

DOUGLAS: OK, well, I'm not going to choke on you. First of all, over 95 percent of the funding of NASA and our space program is wasted because it's not involved - what scientific results may be achieved, but it's based upon public relations. And it's too bad that so many average Americans are scientifically illiterate.

FLATOW: Doug, we're talking about China now. Have you got a question about the Chinese program?

DOUGLAS: Well, yeah, I do. I don't like to see any country waste their money on things that are frivolous. However, I'd rather it be China than the USA.

FLATOW: Well, what do you think, are they wasting their money - Jonathan, Joan?

JOHNSON-FREESE: China doesn't think they are. They are getting a great deal of technology. They are getting a great deal of international prestige, which translates into geopolitical influence, which is very important to them. If the Chinese thought they were wasting their money, they would stop it immediately.

FLATOW: Are they serious about going, setting up a station on the moon?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, again, that just recently began to be discussed. And I agree with Jonathan: Right now that is in the paper phase, the discussion phase, and I don't think they're even going to seriously consider a decision on that for the next five years or so.

MCDOWELL: You often get Chinese space program officials floating ideas that are reported in the West as China plans to do this when it's really I'm hoping to get my idea funded. And so I think that's right. You can be confident that the space station program is going ahead. I think there's question of the money, you know, it goes back to this old question is human space flight worth spending money on.

It's not if your purpose is to do science, but if your purpose is that you think we have a future colonizing space, for example, then it makes sense to spend that money. So I think you cannot conflate the scientific purposes and other legitimate purposes that a country may have.

FLATOW: One last question: Where then does the United States' manned space program fit into all of this?

JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, I personally think the Obama administration made the right decision when it decided to stop with the plans for the moon that were not really feasible, it had never been funded to a level that made it realistic, and instead make the very hard decision to take a new direction, which was going to take time, so it was going to be painful because the American people are not really quite very patient, and become more of a public-private partnership so that eventually the private sector will deal with low-Earth orbit and NASA can use its exploration funding to go to more distant places.

FLATOW: Jonathan, do you agree?

MCDOWELL: Absolutely. NASA should not be doing the taxi driving between the ground and low-Earth orbit, because that's a solved problem. Get the private companies to do that, get the NASA astronauts pushing out beyond to new destinations. I personally like the idea of going to asteroids. Other people like Mars, or whatever.

NASA should be on the frontier, and that's what it will do.

FLATOW: If it has the money.

MCDOWELL: If it has the money. If Congress can make a decision, because there's still this back-and-forth between Congress and the administration on where to go, what to do, what to fund. And I think once NASA's given a political direction, it will follow that direction.

JOHNSON-FREESE: I agree with Jonathan. What China has that the U.S. doesn't have is political will that's backed up with commitment.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's what we had in the '60s. OK, thank you very much both for taking time to be with us today. Jonathan McDowell is author of Jonathan's Space Report and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. And Joan Johnson-Freese is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Thank you for taking time today.


MCDOWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.