I woke up Saturday morning to learn there were three new humans and one less reusable spaceship in Earth orbit.
Saturday morning at 6:37 a.m. EDT China launched its fourth manned mission into space atop a Long March rocket. The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, which is based largely on the design of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, carried two men and China’s first female astronaut into orbit.
Their 13-day mission is to dock with a prototype space station launched last year. Two of the crew members will work and live inside the Tiangong 1 space lab while the third remains inside the Shenzhou spacecraft as a safety precaution.
If all goes well – a required phrase in the space business – the mission will be a great achievement for China and mark an important milestone for their plans, which by all accounts target a manned landing on the Moon by 2025 as one of their next big goals. Exactly when that will happen of course is still anybody’s guess – not that we can put definite dates on any of our own plans to go back to the Moon or on to Mars.
China began its human spaceflight program about 20 years ago, and launched its first man into space in 2003. A two-man mission then launched in 2005, and then a three-man mission that included China’s first spacewalk launched in 2008.
So I suppose in terms of a piloted docking with an orbiting spacecraft, you can say that it has taken China 20 years to do what we did in eight, if you start the clock ticking from the time NASA was formed in 1958 to the time of the Gemini 8 mission in 1966. Of course, it did take us 25 years to launch OUR first female into space.
But to dismiss this Chinese spaceflight with a wave of the hand and a “been there, done that” attitude would be wrong, just as surely as it is wrong to dismiss with that same general argument the recent achievement by SpaceX at our own space station a couple of weeks ago.
Do I think this is a remarkable achievement? Yes. Any one that can do this, no matter where the expertise or designs originally came from, ought to be congratulated. Putting humans into orbit and safely returning them is still difficult. It’s something that only three nations have done – so far.
Do I think that we should now open the hatches of the International Space Station and welcome the Chinese in with open arms? Not now, but I wouldn’t say never.
You know, it’s not a matter of trusting their technology, or even the specific people directly managing their space program. The fact remains that China is a communist nation with serious human rights issues, a still-contentious position with regard to Taiwan and, for us, troubling relationships with nations such as Iran and North Korea. (Not that we don’t have our own problems internationally.)
That said, do I think the Chinese people are very warm and friendly? Yes. In fact, the Chinese officials associated with their space program whom I have met during my career were very much so. We are all human. We all share this same planet. And we must find a way to live and work together in peace.
Nevertheless, for now, I remain suspicious and mistrustful of the Chinese government and I am concerned that these very peaceful achievements in space by China could turn into a threat to our national security and to our national pride.
I’m not sure if this is politically correct or not; it may not even be very Christian of me, but simply put: I do not want to see the next human footprints on the Moon being made by a boot stamped “Made in China.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean I am advocating another Cold War-type Space Race to the Moon. But I do believe the folks in Washington, D.C. need to pay a little more attention to what China is doing in space, and in response take bolder steps in terms of improved space policy, technology investment and education to ensure there is never a threat from China to our national security or national pride.
Perhaps one part of a proper response to China’s space efforts took place barely two hours after the Long March rocket blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
Also on Saturday, at 8:48 a.m. EDT, the Air Force’s winged X-37B reusable spaceplane returned to Earth after a 468-day spaceflight, touching down on the long runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in March of 2011, this Orbital Test Vehicle is the second of at least two that we know about that Boeing built for the Air Force. OTV-1 flew in 2010 and is slated to return to space atop another Atlas 5 as early as this October.
Now there are still a lot of things we don’t know about this program. We don’t know what it did up there for 15 months. We don’t know if there were any problems during the flight. We don’t know how much the flight cost, or how much has been spent in total on the program since it was begun by NASA in 1999 and turned over to the military in 2004.
But we do know it did return to Earth without incident on Saturday and looked great in pictures that were posted on the Internet.
So the big question you may be wondering today is if the X-37B represents a capability that means anything for NASA in terms of its future space transportation plans, including the reliance on commercial providers for cargo delivery and astronaut taxi service to the International Space Station?
My answer is that I don’t think it should mean anything to NASA and our commercial space programs right now. The X-37B is not a big spaceship. It can’t carry much into space and it may be too expensive to maintain and operate outside a military budget.
But with the Chinese making advances in space that have implications for our national security, and our national ego, I’m glad the X-37B is reminding the world in yet another way that our space program has not shut down, we’re still trying out new things, and our nation’s spaceports remain open for business.