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Not Enough Space for Two: Division in Aerospace Exploration

Oct 07, 2021

The three Chinese astronauts who spent three months in China’s inaugural space station returned safely to earth in the Shenzhou 12 capsule on Friday, September 17, 2021. The mission was a success, as was the televised coverage. CCTV and associated channels beamed real time images of the craft as it entered Chinese airspace from the southwest before deploying a huge parachute to slow its descent into the western deserts. High-definition cameras showed the returning craft swinging back and forth like a pendulum, suspended by a billowing red-and-white striped parachute set against a cerulean blue sky. 

A record number of people were orbiting the earth in mid-September.  In addition to the Shenzhou 12 crew, there were 7 crew members aboard the U.S.-led International Space Station, and perhaps more amazingly, four civilians orbiting the earth at an altitude higher than the Hubble Space telescope as part of a four-day journey as “tourists” on the SpaceX craft Endeavor.  

While the inclusion of civilians in a commercial space adventure makes the whole idea of space flight seem almost routine, rocket science is still an evolving field of endeavor with many frightening touch-and-go moments. Liftoff and landing continue to hold great perils, though the march of science, necessary modifications, and quality control applied to known problem areas has helped to render the periodic tragedies that struck U.S. and Russian programs in the early days of Soyuz, Apollo and the Space Shuttle less likely. 

Still, it takes physical courage on the part of participants, and political courage for a nation to venture into space. The extensive live coverage of Shenzhou 12 represents a shift in perception management on the part of the Chinese government, letting the world see it as it happens despite the high-stakes and precedent for catastrophe to strike. 

As an American who grew up watching the U.S. space program evolve from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs to the Shuttle and Space station, I have watched recent live coverage of China’s program, SpaceX, and others with great interest. There are numerous nail-biting moments when an aerodynamically shaped canister with human beings inside is vaulted into the heavens or comes hurtling back down to the home planet for a not-so-soft landing. 

Watching the September 17 landing of Shenzhou 12, covered comprehensively from many angles, the moment when the craft hits the dry desert floor leads to a flash and presumably a bang, followed by a puff and outpouring of smoke. The rough landing may not be as dangerous as it looks, but it is a reminder that this is not exactly a runway landing either. After the impact of landing, the spacecraft rolled onto its side, rather than remain upright, but this proved to be a minor glitch. 

Follow-up footage showed the three Shenzhou 12 crew members Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, chatting with a reporter nonchalantly reclined in outdoor chairs designed to accustom their bodies to gravity after 12 weeks in space. Chinese flags were strategically planted on the landing site, adding a dash of color to the arid, desiccated landscape that bore an eerie resemblance to the surface of Mars.  

Although China has been characterized as having become more inward-looking as of late (and where in the world hasn’t, given the halt of normal travel, trade and exchange due to pandemic concerns?), the outward media coverage of its budding space station, and the inaugural flight to and from, has been as confident as it is transparent. 

This bodes well for a field of endeavor that ignites and unites human imagination. Space might be limitless but when it gets mixed up with nationalism, it gets parochial, such as the U.S. legislation known as the Wolf Amendment which banned Chinese participation in the “international” space station as of 2011. 

China’s go-it-alone program is praiseworthy not because go-it-alone is the way to go in an ideal world, but because it is a mature and measured reaction to being deliberately excluded from a global joint venture due to American political prejudices. China’s burgeoning space station program, which included space walks, testing of new equipment, and the usual micro-gravity shenanigans can be seen in a way as a literal embodiment of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s famous quote about prejudice. 

“When they go low, we go high” 

How much more productive it is, not just for a man or a nation, but all mankind (to riff on another quote from another famous American, Neil Armstrong) to get ahead instead of sulking about exclusion, trading insults, or engaging in self-defeating ways to get even. 

As forward-looking as China’s space program looks to be, there are limits to future cooperation that extend beyond the political. One problem with re-inventing the wheel and building go-it-alone programs from the ground up is engineering compatibility. As it stands now, each program has its own idiosyncratic specifications which makes joint exploration, or even a space rescue unlikely. If the ports and docking mechanisms do not match, a meeting up in space is almost impossible. Given that much of the Shenzhou hardware is influenced by the Russia’s legendary (and still active) Soyuz make of spacecraft, an exchange of personal or equipment is theoretically possible between Chinese and Russian programs, though even there, significant adjustments to docking mechanisms are necessary and a re-alignment of specifications would be required. 

The quasi-moribund U.S. efforts at human space exploration through the offices of NASA in recent decades have received a critical shot in the arm from private industry, nowhere more spectacularly than by SpaceX and other projects spearheaded by space entrepreneur Elon Musk. U.S. government involvement is still a critical element, especially in funding and underwriting development costs, but it is the entrepreneurs who have captured the imagination of America’s space enthusiasts. Unlike NASA's bloated and aged bureaucracy, key newcomers in the field are animated by the kind of daring dreams and youthful enthusiasm that was so essential to the U.S. Space program in its early days, and is so evident in China’s proud embrace of its very competent space program in the present day.

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