Chinese-American astronaut Leroy Chiao is a bit of a contrarian. He advocates embracing China, rather than shunning it, in the new space race to Mars . He also says America’s relationship with Russia on travel to the International Space Station (ISS ), despite recent turmoil in Ukraine, is a good thing for both countries.
Chiao was born in 1960 to Chinese parents who had migrated to the U.S. and knows his stuff. He flew in space four times, three on the Shuttle and one on a Soyuz rocket. He holds a B.S. from the University of California at Berkeley, and an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara in chemical engineering.
JC: Should America get China involved with ISS and sending humans to Mars?
LC: China is the only entity other than Russia that can launch astronauts into space now. I’ve been an advocate for years of bringing China into the ISS program just so we have another way of getting crew and cargo there in case of a problem with Russia’s spacecraft. Even the Russians want that because they’re the single string now – if something goes wrong, even they are not going to be able to get to the station. China has technical capability, but they do not have the operational experience that Russia or we have – that’s why they would be interested in partnering. For them it’s also validation – a seal of approval if you will that NASA will work with them. From our standpoint, China would be a very different partner than Russia. Russia is a good partner, but they have had financial challenges and, by and large, we have been funding their part of ISS for a while. China has a budget and can build their own modules, contribute hardware and time. The technology is good – I’ve seen it. It makes sense to partner with them now for ISS, then eventually for going back to the moon and on to Mars. I think it would help relations between our countries.
JC: What about the argument that because China spies on us, they could steal our space technology?
LC: My answer there is, ‘Look, you’re going to tell me the Russians aren’t spying on us? We broke up a spy ring a couple of years ago. Who hasn’t seen the Anna Chapman Maxim spread – or hasn’t wanted to?’ Everyone is spying on everyone. The space program has safeguards in place to keep improper technology transfer from happening. To my knowledge, there has been no improper transfer with the Russians since NASA started working with them – in either direction. The same safeguards would work with China.
JC: How do you feel about our space partnership with the Russians given turmoil in Ukraine?
LC: When we first started working with Russia in the 1990s, I was a skeptic. I grew up during the Cold War and was thinking, ‘Why are we doing this? Their stuff is inferior and you can’t trust them.’ Of course both notions turned out not to be true. Since I became intimately involved in the ISS program training for my missions, I’ve seen the clear advantages of international cooperation. That we were able to help Russia when they were having trouble with MIR and then, after the Columbia accident, that they were able to launch our astronauts to keep ISS going is proof. There are bigger-picture consequences of two superpowers working on a common project as big and difficult as ISS that spill over to other parts of the relationships as well. We have differences with Russia over the situation in Crimea and Ukraine now, but I have to believe things would be worse if we weren’t partners in ISS.
JC: You flew in 2005 with the Russians. Compare launching on a Soyuz with the Shuttle?
LC: The experiences are totally different. With the Shuttle, when the solid rocket boosters light it feels like you’re exploding off the pad, like someone came up and literally kicked the back of your chair. The acceleration is such that by the time you’ve cleared the launch tower you’re already doing over 100 mph. Then, because solid fuel burns unevenly, there’s a lot of vibration. During much of the first stage I had trouble reading the cockpit screens. With Soyuz they use liquid fuel. When the engines start, it’s very smooth. The thrust builds up gradually. You don’t even feel liftoff. The only way you know is the launch officer announces it in your headset.