Asia and China’s heavenly palace in space

June 3, 2015 9:31 AM (UTC+8)

 

By Raja Murthy

“Since, in the long run, every planetary civilization will be endangered by impacts from space, every surviving civilization is obliged to become space faring — not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive…we have a basic responsibility to our species to venture to other worlds.”

― Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), astronomer, science communicator, author of ‘Cosmos’

I received two brief one-line emails from NASA: “Time: Mon Jun 01 7:40 PM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 71 degrees, Appears: SSW, Disappears: NE” and some hours later: “Time: Tue Jun 02 5:29 AM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 84 degrees, Appears: NW, Disappears: SE”. These solicited alerts, about when the International Space Station would be flying overhead, were for me to look up and wave cheerily at six residents living at a long-term postal address outside Earth.

Over 200 people from 15 countries have lived, worked or bought space tourism tickets to the International Space Station (ISS) the past 15 years. From a week to an average of five months, they lived 350 kms (217 miles) above Earth flying at speed faster than a bullet shot off a gun. It takes two days to reach the ISS, but no one from China has done this journey — a ‘No Admittance’ [禁止入場] sign is up for Asia’s largest space faring nation.

Ongoing talks between U.S. and Russia could end the April 2011 Act the US Congress controversially passed to bar China from all NASA activities (*1). “National security,” Republican lawmaker Frank Wolf and Co had then said, even calling China an “evil empire”.

China owning $1.2 trillion in U.S. government securities is no problem, apparently, but Chinese astronauts aboard ISS would be hazardous to American health. U.S. scientists boycotted a NASA conference in 2013, slamming the China ban as “completely shameful and unethical.” (*2)

How much more advanced sci-tech could have been developed aboard ISS with inputs of Chinese space science over ten years? Space technology is neither time nor money wasted. Mega-pixel cameras and MRI machines are among over 1,600 technologies commonly in use now that were originally developed for space application (*3).

Better late than never, the new U.S.-Russia talks could ensure taikonauts (China’s astronauts) join the ISS benefits of what NASA calls a “blueprint for global cooperation” for “shared goals in space exploration.” A motive for shifting U.S. stance may be realization of having scored an “own goal” in banning China from the football field-sized ISS. China is building its space station ‘Tiangong’ (Chinese: 天宫; pinyin, meaning ‘Heavenly Palace’), for launch in 2022.

By 2022, if the ISS runs out of funding and retires as scheduled, then the proverbial boot may be on the Chinese foot. Chinese Ministry of Defense Wang Jin declared in May that foreign astronauts are welcome to visit the future Chinese Space Station (*4). But he did not specify if invitation to the ‘Heavenly Palace’ included NASA astronauts — just as ISS “blueprint for global cooperation” meant globally except the Chinese.

Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Iran are the only Asian countries whose astronauts or space tourists have lived inside the ISS. Unlike American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Mikhail Kornienko (currently set to break residency record in the ISS – 366 days till March 16, 2016), Chinese astronauts like Nie Haisheng and  Zhang Xiaoguang are yet to live for months in the ISS, take a space walk, eat a meal in special packaging to stop soup from flying away (*5). “If you want to know how hard it is to swallow in space, try eating while lying on one side,” suggested former space dweller Piers Sellers.

Yet China has veteran astronauts. Zhang Xiaoguang (49), a former fighter pilot from Jinzhou, Liaoning province, clocked 1,000 hours of flying time and was among the first taikonauts in 1998. He had to wait though until April 2013 to fly in the Shenzhou-10, China’s fifth manned space mission.

China plans to recruit its next generation of astronauts in the next two years, as part of a 30-year, three-phase program that started 1991, to eventually build the 20-tonne manned space station Tiangong. Once fully operational, the ‘Heavenly Palace’ will have maximum three human occupants during its expected 10-year existence 340-450 kms above Earth.

In contrast to U.S.-China cold war in space, Japanese astronauts have regularly flown in NASA space shuttles since March 1992, when astronaut Mamoru Mohri flew on mission STS-47 on a eight-day flight clocking 3.3 million miles around the Earth. Kimiya Yui and Koichi Wakata are scheduled to add to list of six Japanese who lived in ISS that Japan helped to build.

Asia’s other leading space faring country India has launched 77 satellites but sent only one astronaut into space. Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma in 1984 spent seven days aboard the Soviet Salyut-7 orbital station. Since then, though India completed challenging unmanned missions to Moon and Mars (*6), the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) has announced no firm date for a manned space mission.

Unlike China that started planning for manned space missions in 1991, India’s ISRO held its first official discussion on space travel only in 2006, with 80 senior scientists attending a meeting at the ISRO Headquarters in Antariksh Bhavan, Bangalore, on November 7, 2006.

A tentatively scheduled ISRO plan from 2006 took a major stride forward with the successful launch of a space crew module — Crew Module Atmospheric Re-entry Experiment (CARE) — aboard India’s Geostationary Launch Vehicle Mark 3 rocket from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in December 2014 (*7).

The real story here is in what is missing — a substantially shared space program between China, Japan and India to pool resources, technology and skills. Japanese astronauts have experience of living and working long term in space, China has know-how to produce manned space modules (living quarters for orbiting astronauts) and India’s ISRO owns innovative, cost-effective technology to launch space rockets.

Yet the three countries seem determined to re-invent the space wheel the other already is running. The result is time travel backwards. Instead of being evolutionary upgrade of the ISS, China’s Tiangong is based more on the Russian space station Mir from the 1980s.

Asian co-operation becomes increasingly necessary as making space stations is no loose change. Mir cost an estimated $4.5 billion and the ISS has run up a bill for $150 billion. Logistics are mighty – mission control at Houston and Moscow needs 1,000 people at work 24/7 for every astronaut aboard ISS. Asia needs its version of the 22-member country European Space Agency, to take forward humanity’s pioneering footsteps outside Earth.

No point celebrating 21st century science and technology with 16th century medieval mindset. The stunning, breathtaking views of Earth (*8) from the International Space Station dissolve national borders and petty differences. Yet a misplaced sense of parochial pride clouds deeper benefits the world could gain if the three Asian space powers work together — as, for instance, in ensuring the Tiangong is more a heavenly palace for many than a cramped retro space ride for three.

Life on Station:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9vOoXU56KI

Notes:

  1. Chinese spacecraft may soon be allowed to dock with the International Space Station, Daily Mail, UK, May 29, 2015
  2. ‘US scientists boycott Nasa conference over China ban’, The Guardian, by Ian Sample, Oct 5, 2013. This article won the ‘Best News Story’ Award of 2014 from the Association of British Science Writers.
  3. Over 1,600 space applications revolutionized life, says ISRO chief, Economic Times, May 30, 2015. How does space exploration impact your daily life? NASA
  4. Chinese astronaut calls for cooperation, access to International Space Station, CNN, by David McKenzie, May 29, 2015
  5. Remarkable NASA video of daily life aboard International Space Station, April 7, 2015; Eating in Space, NASA; 5,200 days in Space, The Atlantic, Jan-Feb, 2015; Life aboard the International Space Station, The Guardian, Oct 24, 2010.
  6. Mangalyaan sends critics into orbit, Asia Times, Sept 26, 2014
  7. India takes giant step to manned space mission, The Telegraph, UK, Dec 19, 2014
  8. Spectacular Twitter photos and videos of Commander Terry W.Virts, from aboard the International Space Station.

Raja Murthy is a freelance journalist, and wishes beings in all world systems to be happy

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