DENVER, Jul 10 – Reaction to China’s successful, first manned space docking with the launch of the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft was loud and clear from the U.S. space community: “Congratulations! “
“We’re very proud that China has joined us in space,” said astronaut Michael Fincke, referring to China’s June 16 launching of Shenzhou-9 and the safe return last week of its crew of three, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang.
Fincke, logging more time in space than any astronaut in U.S. history, is arguably the most celebrated American astronaut since Neil Armstrong. He has logged 381 days in space in three missions to the International Space Station, and was the commander on ISS Expedition 18.
“When you’re looking down on Earth from space,” Fincke paused, “you have to wonder how there could be any conflict, anywhere? We’ ve got a whole universe to explore, and if we’re together, anything can happen.”
While the Voice of Russia radio station announced Friday that China has became the global leader in the number of space launches in the first half of 2012 (China: 10; Russia: 9; and the U.S.: 8), Fincke said China’s next step is to have astronauts spend more hours in space. The Shenzhou flight lasted only 14 days.
“China is well on their way and I’d love to partner with them in space,” Fincke said.
It’s been a little more than a decade since China was excluded from the 16-nation International Space Station (ISS). But China’s rapid advancement in space exploration has piqued American interest, and changes may be on the way.
Fincke and fellow American astronaut Gregory Chamitoff (198 days in space) were in Denver last week talking about their experiences at the first annual ISS conference. “The Chinese are off to a great start,” Chamitoff said. “Bring them on board.”
One year ago, Fincke delivered the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a state-of-the-art cosmic ray particle detector, to the station on the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s final flight. Not only can the AMS detect dark matter and antimatter, but also cosmic rays data it collects will help researchers understand how exposure to these rays might affect astronauts during long-term space travel.
“The spectrometer was made in China,” Fincke said. “They have so much to offer.”
However, other members of the American space community cautioned that China inclusion might take time.
“It’s a decision from the executive (presidential) branch to include the Chinese,” noted Frank Slazer, president of the American Astronautical Society (AAS), who hosted the ISS conference event along with NASA and CASIS, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. Slazer has been a high-ranking member of AAS for 20 years, and is deeply connected to NASA and the aerospace community.
“Washington has issues about China’s cyber activity and intellectual property rights concerns,” Slazer said. “People in our government are also concerned about China’s social issues, and that has slowed their involvement.”
“We also want to know what China brings to the table technologically,” he added, noting that Japan developed a launch vehicle and Russia offered Mir technology when they were considered for ISS partnership.
Nonetheless, American scientists were quick to jump to China’s defense.
“When you set your table and someone who’s supposed to be there is not, then that’s not a good thing,” said Neil Talbott, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture working on animal science experiments in space. Part of Talbott’s research is to examine pig’s liver in a 3-dimensional, micro-gravity environment. Talbott said if expensive amino acids could be genetically produced in space, the medical applications could help millions.
Peter Lu, a Harvard Ph.D. and scientist working on how liquids separate and their densities differ in microgravity, believes that the Chinese should be brought on board as full partners on the ISS.
“Science is one of the common grounds where countries that might have some disagreements can come together to advance the frontiers of knowledge past the point where each country’s individual resources apply,” Lu said. “We should all be working together to leverage that maximally in a cooperative fashion. There are some very bright people in China who are being left out. ”
Kenn Gold, working in space technology since 1989, is developing software through his Maryland-based company, Emergent Space Technologies, to transform a communications radio to a navigation receiver by altering its software. Gold earned his Ph.D. at the University of Colorado’s Center for Astrodynamics Research, and hopes to launch his platform by July 20, and have the technology ready for space next year.
“The United States is so far down in the world in science and technology that we need all the help we can get,” he said. ” Everybody knows the next man on the moon will be Chinese. That’s a fact.”
CASIS Director of Marketing and Communications Bobby Block linked the future decision to include China and the recent decision to partner with Russia.
“Many years ago the U.S. made the decision to launch a space station with Russia because we understood the geo-political importance. There are people who see similar benefits with China, but others are cautious,” Block said.
“When we have more superpowers involved, that makes the partnership more significant. The ISS is a good example of what can be achieved when we put our differences aside and work together,” he said.