China Launches A Space Laboratory

China launched an experimental spacecraft from the Gobi desert this week. The unmanned Tiangong-1 (which means "Heavenly Palace-1") is expected to orbit Earth for two years. Journalist Miles O'Brien discusses planned docking missions for the craft and China's space program.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. China launched its first space laboratory this week. The unmanned Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace-1, left the Gobi Desert yesterday, entered Earth orbit. China plans to launch another unmanned craft, and according to a Chinese state media statement, to, quote, experiment in rendezvous and docking and to eventually develop a space station. Sounds very familiar.

So will China one day have its own version of the International Space Station complete with astronauts? Maybe it's a step in going to the moon. Joining me now to talk more about it is my guest, Miles O'Brien. He's a journalist who's been covering aviation, space and science for 30 years. He's a science correspondent for "The News Hour" on PBS. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Miles.

MILES O: Ira, it's a pleasure.

FLATOW: My joy. What do you know about this spacecraft here?

BRIEN: Well, it's - you wouldn't call it a space race, would you, because the Chinese - I guess if you were measuring it in geological timeframes, yes, but they move in a very plodding way, a methodical way. And those who would suggest that there is some sort of new space race underway, frankly, I think, say so a bit wistfully, hoping there'll be another space race because, after all, it fueled a lot of expense and spending on this side to go to the moon.

FLATOW: Well, so they're not in a race with anybody, but they're going to be making progress, doing something, I would imagine.

BRIEN: Yeah, this is a key thing. To call this a space station is a bit of a stretch. It's not designed to keep people up there indefinitely, as the International Space Station does, now more than a decade, of course, in that case.

In this case, as time goes on, and as they add to it, they will tend it for longer periods of time. What's really crucial about this, Ira, is this will demonstrate to them and to the world that they can rendezvous and dock at a target. That's a significant piece of the space puzzle.

If you're really going to be a player in space, you have to solve the rendezvous and docking problem, and that is not a simple problem. And so this is their target, if nothing else, to dock to. They'll fly a couple of unmanned missions to do that, and then at the end of 2012, the plan is to send some Jap(ph) - excuse me, Chinese taikonauts to spend a shorter period of time but eventually longer periods of time for later crews at this tended object.

FLATOW: Have they not expressed their desire to go to the moon someday?

BRIEN: Yeah, we've heard that. We've heard, you know, talk about maybe one day going to Mars. There's all kinds of grand aspirations there. They just have moved in a very slow way. Their first manned flight was back in 2003. They've flown three manned missions. Last one was in 2008. So they're moving in a slow process, but I guess in the context of Chinese history, it's a perfectly appropriate timescale, right?

FLATOW: Well, you know, the obvious question is we don't have a spacecraft to go to the International Space Station. The Russians don't have one now either. Why not ask the Chinese?

BRIEN: Why shouldn't we hedge our bets? Why shouldn't we be able to hail another taxi, as it were, right?

FLATOW: Exactly, exactly.

BRIEN: And this is - this gets into a lot of geopolitics, as you can imagine. The Chinese space program is pretty opaque to the rest of the world, to say the least. There are a lot of political considerations in play when you start partnering with the Chinese. The concern, of course, is that U.S. technology would be borrowed and not returned, so to speak, by the Chinese, and so there is reluctance to create the kinds of partnerships that you would need in order to have a Chinese spacecraft docking at the International Space Station.

Now, they haven't even proved they can dock yet. Now, we'll see. If they start docking at this tended object, and they succeed, maybe that will change. But the politics may not.

FLATOW: And I understand that on this space station are some International Space Station flags that were brought onboard.

BRIEN: Yeah, I mean, I think the Chinese, frankly, they would like to be a part of the International Space Station, if they had their druthers. But right now the politics don't work so well. The Chinese have a long and fruitful relationship with the Russian space program.

If you look at their manned capsule, the Shenzhou, it looks just like a Soyuz rocket. It's not a complete knockoff, it's a little bit larger, and the inside is modified to their liking, but the truth is the Russians and the Chinese have worked together. When I was in Star City years ago, there were some Chinese taikonauts there at the time. I was told to look the other way. It was kind of unofficial at that time.

And so they had this strong relationship. I think if the Russians were calling the shots, the Chinese might be part of the space station, but of course the U.S. has a say-so in that.

FLATOW: CCTV, the Chinese TV, released a video animation of the craft. And playing behind in the background was "America the Beautiful." How can that be a mistake?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRIEN: That is either some really strange irony, or somebody's in deep trouble today, Ira, and is in a cell right next to the Tiananmen Square tank guy or something. I don't know.

FLATOW: It was very funny. We were watching it on the Internet. So they're going to launch this second ship, something, as you say, to prove they can rendezvous with the space vehicle. No people will be onboard this one either. But this seems to be saying, if I hear you correctly, sort of planting a flag into a next generation of space travel.

They're saying we're here, we're not only eating your lunch in production of consumable goods, we're now getting into the space business.

BRIEN: Yeah, you know, you say the next generation, but in a way what they're doing seems to be a bit of an anachronism of another era. You knw, we sort of have been there and done this. But this is also, this is part of - the big picture here is Chinese, their view of superpower status and supremacy in the world.

And it is their view, I've talked to them over the years, trying to get in the door there and do some work there, it's kind of hard to get in, it is their view that this is a big part of, if nothing else, the geopolitics, the soft power that space exerts in the world.

FLATOW: Of course, they showed us some of their power years ago when they blew up a satellite, did they not?

BRIEN: And this is what gives people a little pause in the West. In 2007, the Chinese had a defunct weather satellite. For reasons no one fully really understands outside of the Chinese military - and it is a military-controlled program, let's not forget that - in any case, they lobbed a ballistic missile at their own defunct satellite and obliterated it, to prove they could do it.

But what was - the consequence of this was it created just thousands and thousands of piece of hazardous space junk in low-Earth orbit, and it also made an interesting statement about the Chinese program, how much is it a militaristic - how much is it about Star Wars, how much of it is about, you know, the space shuttle and the space station.

FLATOW: Of course all our astronauts were military people to begin with also.

BRIEN: Well, you know, I mean we make - of course Eisenhower was very clear when he created NASA, let's make it a civilian program. But it was populated by military people. So that might have been a difference without a distinction to the rest of the world, including the Chinese.

FLATOW: Well, Miles, thank you very much.

BRIEN: It was a pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: For taking time to be with us. Miles O'Brien, who you can see on PBS, he's a correspondent for PBS and a science journalist, been on - on 30 years or so. You'll see his reports on "The News Hour" on PBS.

BRIEN: When dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

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