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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

A little bit later in the hour, we'll talk about the life of rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and the political judgments about him.

But first, this week, China launched a rocket, carrying a satellite right to the moon. It's a probe. The Chang'e One, named after a mythical woman who travelled to the moon. And it's going to orbit the moon taking pictures and collecting data. Later missions onboard will send a - on the board, later missions, I guess, to be launched will send a lander to the surface. The Chinese are going to collect samples from the surface, eventually land humans there. Does this sound familiar to you?

Well, we've been there before. It looks like China, though, is not the only country with eyes on the moon. Japan launched a mission last month to the moon. India scheduled to fire off its own moon shot early next year. And the U.S., of course - President Bush has plans to return to the moon, set up a base there, possibly a stepping stone to go into Mars. So are we going back to the days of an international space race?

Joining me now is Joan Johnson-Freese. Joan Johnson-Freese, she's the chair of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and author of several books and space programs around the world. She joins by phone. Welcome to the program.

Dr. JOAN JOHNSON-FREESE (Chair, Department of National Security Studies, Naval War College) Thank you very much for having me.

FLATOW: Is this deja vu all over again for you?

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, the Chinese have definitely read the Apollo playbook and know all the benefits that can be reaped from investments in space.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Joan, is this about science and technology? Or is it about what eventually we turned into a political race?

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, techno-nationalism, the idea that you use technology to gain regional or global influence is certainly a driver, if not the primary driver, behind many of these space missions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: But there is also - everything that we gain from Apollo -jobs, students gaining interest in science and technology, careers, spinoffs into many areas, including the military to be reaped from these space missions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about what the mission actually is because I think it got virtually no coverage in this country.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Very little. It's important to note that their robotic lunar mission - what this was all about - is very separate from its manned -from the Chinese manned program.

In fact, it's as though - if they were in the United States, it would be as though one were funded by NASA and one from the Air Force. They're not all part of one big program. And the Chinese have never officially announced a manned lunar landing. They have several officials who have talked about it in terms of what they would like to do. But I think these robotic missions will be used as precursor technology demonstrations before they actually announce intentions to land a man on the moon.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So this is going to be a probe that's going to orbit the moon and take picture.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: This one is an orbiter, right.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: And it will send back data for about a year. And then, of course, they have later on the books, intentions to send a lander and a rover.

FLATOW: Do they have an actual time schedule for those?

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Oh, the Chinese time schedules are always very flexible. They change very frequently. I think, you know, right now, they're looking to have their complete robotic program completed within the next five to eight years. But I think that's pretty flexible.

Their manned lunar program, they launch every two to three years. And there is this perception that they are technically beating the United States. I think that perception is created because they have long-term political will that we seem to be lacking.

FLATOW: You think they'll get to the moon back - before we go back to the moon? They'll have their first…

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Yes, they do. It will be because they have the political will. It's a tortoise and a hare race. They are moving very slowly and incrementally.

And the United States, if we had the money to put to our strategy, we could be there long before the Chinese. But space has always been an expandable government-spending priority. People are very supportive until you ask them to rank order space in terms of what they want to see government money spent on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, is it not correct that this mission was launched with cooperation of the European Space Agency?

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: The Europeans, the Russians - many countries in the world are working with the Chinese on their space program. It's actually pretty much just the United States who, at best, ignores the Chinese, at worst, sees them as a competitor.

FLATOW: Hmm. And we have other people in this race. There's Japan and India, right?

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Right. It's very difficult, however, to do manned space in democracies, again, because there is not a constituency and you're responsible to your public. The Japanese space program has recently had their budget cut.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: The Indians are still pursuing space, but more in lines of military utilization. So the race in Asia is largely one driven by perception and the desire to have the rest of the region…

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: …view them as the technology leader.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dr. Johnson Freese, is it possible to keep track of this mission, if we, you know, we'd like to watch it on the Internet or something? We're not going to see it, given very much publicity here.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, actually I'm sure the Air Force is tracking it through our (unintelligible) surveillance network. But for the average American know - and as you said it, it gained very little publicity here. I mean, it's competing with the World Series - that's hard to do. And that's the same thing that happened when the Chinese launched their first man in space, it gains very little attention.

FLATOW: Well…

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: But you can bet it's getting a lot attention in Asia and in Europe.

FLATOW: Well, if they had a celebrity onboard, it would gain a lot of attention.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: That's right. That's right. Actually, there - the Chinese taikonauts are very much celebrities in that country and in much of Asia. But again, the United States, we pretty much ignore, deliberately ignore the Chinese space achievement.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So they will get there, what, in about 10 days or so? Or what's the schedule?

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: I'm not quite sure. They proceed to translunar insertion, which is a big technological achievement. If it were easy, many countries would have done it. And then, probably, sometime within the next week to 10 days.

FLATOW: You're bringing back words I haven't heard, and I can't tell you how. Translunar insertion, all those things...

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Yeah.

FLATOW: …from the old space days.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Well, again, we could do it again if we had the political will to do so.

FLATOW: And there you have it. You've got the last word. Thank you, doctor, for taking your time to be with us.

Dr. JOHNSON-FREESE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Joan Johnson-Freese is the chair of the Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and author of several books on space programs around the world.

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