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 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.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT