China’s giant, quiet step in space continues


 

In May, SpaceX became the first of the new generation of commercial aerospace companies to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. The cargo delivery was part of the first flight test of the integrated Falcon-9 launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule spacecraft with rendezvous and berthing mechanism systems…

One month later, China launched its fourth crewed space mission, Shenzhou-9. This was also a history-making flight, in that China, which had in 2003 become only the third nation capable of launching astronauts into space — now only one of two, since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle in 2011 — demonstrated crewed rendezvous and docking to their orbital module, Tiangong-1. The crew also featured China’s first female astronaut. They spent several days docked to Tiangong-1 conducting various operations, before safely returning to Earth on Thursday night.

China’s mission was widely covered in the international media, but the coverage in the United States was notably quieter than that of SpaceX. This is somewhat understandable, as SpaceX is an American company. But the sentiment of many in the United States is that the Chinese mission was a big “So what?” After all, the United States and Soviet governments had demonstrated crewed docking missions back in the 1960s, and operationally, China is still far behind.

We downplay China’s accomplishments at our own peril. That the United States and the Soviet Union demonstrated crewed rendezvous and docking operations more than 40 years ago is not the point. The point is, now the Chinese can do it, too.

China’s first crewed space docking was a giant step. It enables the Chinese to build and operate their own space station, establish the technology that is necessary to efficiently send astronauts to the moon and beyond, build and operate fuel depots, and construct vehicles and bases in space.

Russia has turned to earning income from their monster first stages used as the base for launching satellites for several companies. The United States is confining efforts almost exclusively to military tasks, turning down a significant number of NASA requests for peaceful purposes. Which puts the lie to whining from pundits and politicians who auto-deny China’s avowed tasking of peaceful purposes in space research.

Regardless of direction – and agitprop – China is the only nation growing a space program for the foreseeable future. I wish them well. I look forward to learning what they discover to add to our knowledge of science off-Earth.

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