Skip to main content

China's giant, quiet step in space

By Leroy Chiao, Special to CNN
updated 8:47 AM EDT, Fri June 29, 2012
A view from Shenzhou-9 spacecraft as it prepares to link with the Tiangong-1 module.
A view from Shenzhou-9 spacecraft as it prepares to link with the Tiangong-1 module.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leroy Chiao: China's first manned space docking in June was a giant step for the country
  • Chiao: We celebrated SpaceX's mission, but were notably quieter about China's mission
  • He says: We downplay China's accomplishments at our own peril
  • Chiao: We don't need another space race, but we must not lose our leadership in space

Editor's note: Leroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station. He served as a member of the 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, and is the special adviser for human spaceflight to the Space Foundation.

(CNN) -- 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.

By all accounts, the major test objectives were successfully achieved. Previously, such spacecraft and operations had only been achieved by governments. What made this a historic first was that a commercial company had done it. The news was widely covered in the international media, especially in the United States.

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 (and is 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.

Leroy Chiao
Leroy Chiao

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.

China makes space history
SpaceX Dragon spashes down

The difference in U.S. attitudes toward these two accomplishments is striking. This is especially interesting given the relative positions of the two. SpaceX is off to an impressive start, but it will be several years from now before they (and/or other commercial players) could have an operational, crewed orbital spacecraft. China, on the other hand, has a relatively mature human spaceflight program that is nearly a decade old.

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.

Opinion: Will China overtake America in space?

The commercial efforts to low Earth orbit, which SpaceX achieved, are only a piece of the U.S. space program. The other much larger piece is exploration of deeper space. This is the domain of government space agencies. In this, the United States must not scale back.

I have seen China's space technology. It is impressive. What the Chinese lack is operational experience. In that, we are still far ahead. But we in the know hear footsteps. It's time not for another government space race, but for expanded space cooperation and collaboration -- an effort the United States would lead, as it does today with the International Space Station program. Bring China into the international fold. This is how we can retain the leadership position. Otherwise, we risk falling behind.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leroy Chiao.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT