April 30, 2011

China/US Should Cooperate In Space: Astronaut

China's most well-known astronaut said Friday that his country and the United States should make good on promises of cooperation in space made by their respective presidents, reports Reuters.

"I think the two countries should proactively implement the intent expressed in the joint communiqu© to eliminate obstacles and promote exchange and cooperation in our space programs," said Yang Liwei, now the vice director of the country's Manned Space Engineering Office.

Efforts in the past to bring a US-China space coalition have failed, foiled by economic, diplomatic and security tensions, despite a 2009 attempt by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao to launch a partnership.

The two leaders, in a joint statement in November 2009, called for "the initiation of a joint dialogue on human spaceflight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit."

But US fears over national defense and technology transfer were significant roadblocks thwarting those efforts. And a Beijing anti-satellite test in January 2007 using a ground-based missile to destroy one of its inactive weather satellites didn't ease any tensions between the two nations.

Yang, considered a hero of China's space program and the first Chinese to go to space, made the statement during a carefully controlled media visit to China's astronaut training facility in Beijing.

Even without collaboration from the United States, China will push forward. China has cooperative help from Russia and other countries, possibly constituting the next best hope for the future of space exploration.

China plans to attempt its first space docking between two unmanned vehicles this year, the first step in its efforts to build a Chinese space station, a senior official said Friday.

"Our next goal is to realize a space docking of two vehicles during the second half of 2011," said Yang.

The maneuver will involve the Tiangong 1 module and the Shenzhou 8 rocket, said Yang, confirming an announcement made last October.

The eight-ton orbiter is on a two-year mission that will see it rendezvous in 2012 with the Shenzhou 9 and 10 rockets, both of which will have astronauts on board.

China plans to launch its space laboratory before 2016, and, Yang said, "around 2020, we plan to realize the construction of a space station in orbit for long-term stays in space."

The planned space station will be made up of a core module, two laboratories, a cargo ship and a manned rocket, with a total weight of 60+ tons. The Russian space station Mir weighs more than 140 tons and the International Space Station weighs 420 tons, the China Daily reported this week.

"China would like to cooperate with other countries," said Yang.

Yang noted potential joint space research programs with France and further efforts to launch the Mars probe Firefly 1 with Russia "in the near future."

He said the Chinese government has spent more than 3 billion dollars in the first phase of its space planning, but has no current target to put a man on the moon.

China, overcoming technical snafus with the help of US companies, has successfully launched 75 consecutive Long March rockets over a 13-year period, beginning in August in 1996. China became the third country, in 2003, to send a man [Yang] into space.

Yang said China's space program was intended to benefit humanity and promote scientific and cultural developments.

"For myself, I hope to one day set foot on the moon, like the beautiful Chinese legend of Chang'e," said Yang, referencing the namesake of China's moon orbiter, a mythical Chinese goddess who was banished to Earth and later flew to the moon only to regret abandoning her husband.

"Of course, it also has an important value for the nation's image and prestige," he said.