To the moon and beyond : Why not bring China into the cosmic club?

Op-Ed Contributor
By Michael Benson

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia— A panel that has been given the responsibility of providing substance to President George W. Bush’s putative new space vision will deliver its report to the White House today after more than four months of hearings. One of the panel’s main tasks has been to try to discern how to return people to the moon, and then eventually forge onward with a manned mission to Mars, without a substantial NASA budget increase.

Panel members have let it be known that they are concerned about how to sustain such an ambitious initiative across several presidential administrations. It will require the design and construction of a new, highly versatile piloted space vehicle capable of travel well beyond low Earth orbit. Because this scenario also mandates that the space shuttle be retired upon the completion of the International Space Station at the end of the decade, the future of U.S. crewed space flight will certainly depend on sustained bipartisan support.

Let’s therefore hope that the panel’s recommendations include a substantial role not only for the Russians, the Europeans and the Japanese — all partners in the International Space Station project — but also the Chinese.

Last October, after more than a decade of development, China successfully launched an astronaut (or “taikonaut”) into Earth orbit in the Shenzhou V spacecraft — essentially a substantially reengineered version of the venerable Russian Soyuz. China is only the third country, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to have sent a human into space.

By all accounts, China’s space officials expected that they would next be invited to participate in the space station project. They therefore designed Shenzhou with a docking ring capable of connecting to the station, and made sure that one of the country’s launch sites is at a latitude suitable for lobbing spacecraft toward it. Despite this, China received a frosty reception from Bush administration officials.

According to an American expert on the Chinese space program, Joan Johnson-Freese, they were told their technology was “not mature.” And when China’s first taikonaut, Yang Liwei — a hero to billions — toured Cape Canaveral two weeks ago, he was hosted not by NASA but by an obscure state organization, the Florida Space Authority.

A multilateral effort to open the solar system could be a perfect antidote to our Earthly fractiousness.

It’s high time we took some more giant leaps — together.


Michael Benson is author of “Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes.”


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