Miles O'Brien

Reporting on space, science, aviation & tech.

“To the Moon, Liu Yang!”


If you are not impressed with the Chinese space program, you are not paying attention. The just-completed Shenzhou-9 mission to the Tiangong-1 “stationlet” appears to be a stunning success.

The three person crew (including China’s first woman taikonaut, Liu Yang) spent slightly less than two weeks in space.

They arrived at Tiangong-1 on autopilot, conducted a series of unspecified experiments and then, most importantly, successfully docked Shenzhou-9 with Tiangong-1 manually – proving they can perform this crucial task in case “George” fails someday  (as mine tends to on short final in the clouds).

My good friend Leroy Chiao and I had hoped to be there for the launch and landing of this mission. But after years of negotiating with the Chinese for some real access to their space program for a documentary, our proposal was flat-out rejected amid the controversy over that blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

Leroy logged four space missions – three on the shuttle and one on the Russian Soyuz – which took him to and from the International Space Station – where he spent about 190 days as Commander of Expedition 10.

Leroy is not the first person of Chinese descent to fly in space – that distinction belongs to Taylor Gun-Jin Wang – a JPL scientist with roots in Taiwan who flew as a payload specialist on STS-51B (Challenger) in May of 1985. And of course, the seven time shuttle flyer Franklin Chang-Diaz had a father of Chinese descent.

But in China, Leroy is considered The Dude. His parents emigrated to the US from Shandong, China (via Taiwan) after World War II. Over the years, Leroy has spent a lot of time getting to know the players and the hardware inside the Chinese space program. Like The Dude, the Chinese program abides.

I thought it might be a nice time to get his thoughts on the Shenzhou-9 mission. You can watch our conversation – or read it. Or even do both – Sing Along with Mitch Miller style. With that reference to another epoch, I think I best quit – and go play some shuffleboard.

Miles O’Brien: I know you’ve been watching it as closely as anybody, prior to the Chinese endeavors, a handful of people of Chinese to send to go to space, and you have spent a lot of time over in China talking with them about their program. Give us a sense of how successful you think this mission might have been.

Leroy Chiao: Well, to me it looks like it’s been a homerun. I haven’t seen any flaws at all. The launch looked good. There were no anomalies, nothing that we heard on the downlink that would indicate any problem with the launch. They got into orbit. They were able to face their orbits then automatically dock again. No indications of any problems. It docked on schedule, entered the module and then stayed docked for 10 days. Most impressively, a couple of days ago, they were actually able to get into the spacecraft, the Shenzhou-9, and demonstrate manual docking several times. That’s a huge deal.

Miles O’Brien: So, the manual docking, that’s as big a deal as any. If you had to prioritize the accomplishments of this mission, you’d have to put that one at the top I would I think.

Leroy Chiao: Absolutely. They had previously demonstrated automatic docking late last year with the Shenzhou-8 mission, which was unmanned and demonstrated. They could automatically dock Tiangong-1. This time, they did it again, and then the manual dockings, as you say, is the biggest deal. That’s because if there was a failure, of course, in the automatic system, they could take manual control and do it, and that has happened before the past.

It happened on our mission when I flew to the space station with Russian equipment, we had a failure of the automatic system and we had to do a manual docking. So this capability, it enables them to do on orbit operations of building an operating space station and using low-Earth orbit as it’s jumping up, going to go to the moon or anywhere else.

Miles O’Brien: This module that they docked it accurate to describe it as the first stage of a space station, do you think, or are they thinking much bigger and grander?

Leroy Chiao: Right. They are thinking much bigger and grander. You can think of Tiangong-1 as an orbital module. I hesitate to call it a space station but I’d call it a man-tended station. It’s obviously not permanently occupied by astronauts, but they’ve demonstrated the ability to dock to it and then conduct operations of this type for 10 days, first time, and imaginably conducted some kind of scientific investigations on board. I’ve seen the markup, the training unit of Tiangong-1 when I was over in Beijing. I would describe it as roughly two-thirds, the habitable volume of Space Lab module that we used to fly and back on the Space Shuttle

Miles O’Brien: So, what’s next for the Chinese? There’s so much speculation about what their goals are in space. You know them as well as anybody – any Westerner – put it that way. What would you say they’re up to?

Leroy Chiao: Well, they’ve been asked. They’re going to build Tiangong-2 and they’re going to launch that, I believe maybe later as soon as — later this year, and it’s going to be a bigger, more capable orbital module. So I think that will be more of a true man-tended space station, and then they have of course plans to build a real, a much bigger space station. Probably like a Mir class space station using a core module similar to what we have on the ISS and then building out. So, that’s docking several modules to that laboratory module just like that. So, basically make a Mir class space station. So it’s not quite as big as the International Space Station, but certainly a Mir sized station.

After that, they have alluded to plans, to land astronauts on the moon. They’ve put up no concrete plans to do that, but I have to believe they’re aiming for the moon because the moon culturally is such an important thing to China and to all Asian countries. It’s hard to imagine that they’re not planning to do that. They’re planning unmanned missions there, Rover missions, things like that, and of course they’re building their Long March 5 rocket, which is an advanced cryogenic rocket that they have. Their first large-scale liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen engines in the first core stage. They’re building their launch facility in Hainan Island. I understand that’s going to be where they’re going to move with all their human operations. So at 19 degrees latitude Hainan is an ideal place to launch to the moon.

Miles O’Brien: I can’t help but thinking of the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare here. They’re slow. They’re steady. They have a 30-year plan. They don’t have a messy little democracy, which gets in the way of a 30-year plan. They have a way of following through on their milestones even over a long period of time. Ultimately, in the end, will the tortoise end up triumphant here and we being the hare, grounded on earth looking at what the Chinese have accomplished.

Leroy Chiao: Well, the thing is this. I’ve heard a lot who say, “Oh, big deal, they got in space. We did that in the ’60s, so did the Soviet Union.” Well, that’s true, but look, the fact is now China can do it too and that enables them to do all of these other things. Their technology, I’ve seen their technology up close and personal and it is good stuff. I mean, they’re very advanced. They’re very capable. They got plans to, like I said, build cryogenic rockets. They have more capabilities.

What they lack is operational experience. This is only their fourth space mission. So they lack the operational experience of the United States and the Soviet Union, but look where we are. We no longer have the ability to launch our own astronauts in the space. We’re hitching rides with Russia and sure, we got commercial things going on but how many years is that going to take before it comes online?

China as you say is slow and steady, and they are coming up, and it makes sense to me, the partner. The United States continues, in a sense, leading the efforts in human space life by being the lead partner, International Space Station. It makes total sense to me to invite countries like China. Publicly not that long ago, voiced that they wanted to join the ISS program and that leads of course to the international partnership to lead human exploration beyond LEO, beyond low-Earth orbit. It makes sense for us to lead that effort and this is one way for us to maintain our leadership, is to invite countries like China for developing their own capabilities into this partnership.

Miles O’Brien: It kind of reminds me — I’m thinking of trite clichés this morning. But there’s that one about “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

Leroy Chiao: Right.

Miles O’Brien: I’m not saying China is an enemy, but if you operate under that assumption, you can make a pretty strong argument that bringing the Chinese into the space station partnership would be a good idea.

Leroy Chiao: Well, sure. I mean, whoever thought we would become major partners with the former Soviet Union. I mean, we had the Cold War for how many decades and yet we managed to make this partnership work and for those who’d say, “Well, China’s going to steal a lot of technology.” Well, to my knowledge, there had been no illegal technology transfers in either direction with Russia, so why would it happen with China? Look what it’s done to our relationship. I think although you could argue that the Russian relationship isn’t great right now in general, I think it would be much worse if we weren’t both cooperating on this big civil project together.

Miles O’Brien: That’s a good point. The Chinese Shenzhou does bear a lot of similarities to the Russian Soyuz. Can you say that they managed to trade technology in a way that would make the U.S. comfortable? Put it that way.

Leroy Chiao: Well, Russia, they cooperated with Russia in this obviously. You look at their spacesuits, look at their spacecraft, look at the way they conduct operations, it’s all very Russia-like. They don’t like to admit that. In fact, they’ll tell you all their stuff is indigenous and homegrown, and it is all manufactured and designed there in China, but they bought and cooperated with Russia, bought technology and used — kind of leapfrogged, and we’re able to build stuff that was modified, Russian gear and Russian operations.

So I think it was all on the up and up. I don’t think anything is illegally transferred from Russia to China. I think it was all cooperation and purchase.

Miles O’Brien: So politics here could ultimately create a scenario whereby 2020, we have no International Space Station anymore. That’s its expected lifetime, and there could very well be a Chinese space station in operation. If we went to the Chinese then and asked to participate in that, I suspect the answer might be no, right?

Leroy Chiao: Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, that is a possible scenario. Certainly, space station as you say currently is slated for a lifetime end of 2020. Of course you’re aware the station can be operated until 2028. So maybe a new lease on life, but it’s certainly possible that we end up one day with no ISS and the Chinese have built their station and the only station up in the sky. In that case, what do we do? Do we just build a new station ourselves? I frankly don’t to see that. By that point, have we gone beyond low-Earth orbit in our exploration? It’s hard to say.

Miles O’Brien: It seems as if we’re kind of watching this slow motion train wreck unfolding here for the U.S. space program and no one seems able to stop it. Why?

Leroy Chiao: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. Number one, in the U.S., we become used to being the leader in human space flight. We just take it for granted. The shuttle program was so successful in that we were launching several shuttles a year and except for the two accidents. People kind of took it for granted. It became a common place. We were operating International Space Station. To the U.S. public, it was no bid deal. Now that we no longer have shuttle, we’re not launching. But we’re still conducting space station opps and frankly, I think most of the American public has become kind of blase about it.

So because of that, politcians don’t really pay much attention to it. They’ve got other things they’re thinking about; their major issues, campaign issues. You’ll notice none of them are about space. I mean, a couple of the candidates early on talked about space but then they got kind of made fun of almost.

Yeah, I’m worried about it. I’m concerned about what this country is going to do because — you and I, we are from a generation that was inspired by Apollo, and it wasn’t just for people to go into technical fields, I think. I think even people who are studying the arts, literature, and things like that, it made them excited too, and it made them want to reach a little higher and try a little harder.

I think it does so much for a national prestige, and that’s why the Chinese are doing it, that’s why the Soviet Union did it, and that’s why we did it. I mean, the main reason, and a lot of people don’t like to admit it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s good for the country.

Miles O’Brien: So you must be a bit ambivalent. You’re a proud American with strong roots to China. Do you find yourself sort of cheering for the Chinese and yet not or —

Leroy Chiao: I’m not battling myself. Yeah, as you say, I’m an American for sure. I have served as an American astronaut and I advocate everything, everywhere I can to keep the American program going. But yeah, my heritage is Chinese. I’m proud of what they’re doing. I’m impressed with what they’re doing, especially as you talked about earlier, their long-term commitment to this. Gosh, I really think we got to work together. If we’d get certain members of Congress over it, I think it will be a great partnership, and it would, in the long run, mean better relations between our two countries.

I mean, people pointed the 2007 anti-satellite test the Chinese conducted when they blew up one of their own weather satellites creating orbital debris and causing an outcry, as there should have been an outcry. Now, think about it. If they’ve been a part — ISS, would they have conducted that test? Would they have done that? Maybe not. Think about it guys. Let’s cooperate with them, make them partners in civil space programs and that will bleed over into other areas. It will make them think twice about doing things that their other partners may not like.

Miles O’Brien: Leroy Chiao, thank you so much.

Leroy Chiao: Great to be with you, Miles.

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  • Harry

    China should have been invited to join the I.S.S. after the shuttle Columbia was lost in ’03. Who knows where human spaceflight would be today?

    • Miles O’Brien

      I think we would be better off working with the Chinese in space. I am certain we can do this without giving them double-secret technology.

  • Pat siu

    Thousand friends are not too many, yet an enemy should be avoided.