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China achieves another milestone in its space program

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Space, as it was called in "Star Trek," the final frontier, except these days, not so much. Billionaires and even a former "Star Trek" captain have been heading outside our atmosphere. And this past week, another milestone - three Chinese astronauts are now at China's new space station, which is big news for this rapidly advancing program. And six more missions have been scheduled in the next year as China builds out its station and works to become a major presence in space. China was banned from the existing International Space Station by U.S. lawmakers in 2011.

Here to talk about this latest move in the space race is Jim Head, professor of geological sciences at the Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences Department at Brown University. Hello.

JIM HEAD: How you doing today?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am doing well. Can you first describe what China is building in space? I mean, what is this new space station meant to do?

HEAD: Well, this is part of China's long-term strategic plan in space. It's basically to explore low Earth orbit and learn to live there and then use that as a way station to do research on the Earth, understanding the effects of long-term gravity and also, you know, the environment of space on humans to use this as a springboard to head onto the moon and possibly even onto Mars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A major step. I mean, how big of a deal is this weekend's arrival for China?

HEAD: This is a major step, but it is one of many steps. So three taikonauts just returned from three months in orbit, and then this crew is going to spend six months. One of the things I really like about this step is that it includes a woman taikonaut. But again, you know, I think this is very inspirational to Chinese youth. And that's - part of the space program is pride and prestige.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Put this in a wider picture. I mean, why this sudden interest in competition over space?

HEAD: You know, I think it's really interesting to look at this through the lens of history. Mark Twain is purported to have said history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. You know, we're not going to redo the Apollo program and Artemis, but there's lessons to be learned there. Space is indeed, essentially, a scientific, technological and organizational frontier.

You can look at this in two ways. The first is that China is strategically using this as a way to further their global goals. You know, or you can say, oh, this is competition. From a long-term perspective, it's really important not to think of this as a space race. What it's like is the Chinese think a little bit differently than we do. With their thousands of years of history, they really think in long-term strategic planning. We think a little bit more like tic-tac-toe. Like, oh, what do they do? Well, what's our next move? And China is way different than that. They're building the Silk Road to space. That's how we ought to think about and develop our national policy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I'm interested in that. I mean, considering that our laws prevent us from cooperating with China in space, I mean, do you think that that naturally sets up this perception of a competitive relationship?

HEAD: Well, I think that's part of it. In the United States, you know, we only bounced off the West Coast of the United States in - you know, in the 1800s. So, you know, we're really a young country, and that's one of our strengths. But I think we tend to think of things in tit for tat a little bit more. That's a problem. And it's particularly a problem when we have this United States law, the Wolf Amendment, which, as you said, is - it's a real problem, I think. I think if we look at it as a long-term perspective, it really ties one hand behind our back. You know, right now, up in the space station, Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts and European astronauts are having lunch together, for crying out loud. So I think it's a little bit of a problem in the sense I think we're being hampered by the Wolf Amendment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think this could mean for international relations for the U.S. in space, considering what we're seeing right now?

HEAD: Well, I think that because space is such a scientific, technological and organizational frontier that the demonstrations, like the space station - you know, that's a demonstration to everybody that China has this capability and indeed is a credible international partner to explore space. There's no question the United States remains the leader in space exploration. But at the same time, you know, where do we go in the future? China, because of this ability to invite foreign entities along, is really stepping into a leadership role in space. So I think that's something we need to think about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But as someone who has spent, you know, the majority of your career looking at this, how do you see space? Do you see it as a place where all humankind needs to sort of claim it together? Or do you see it as a space that eventually will be sort of competitive as it is on our own Earth, you know, the skies?

HEAD: It's a very good question. And I think from a broader philosophical point of view, it is indeed a place where we can put our local and global differences aside and think about the future. And setting up false boundaries is really a problem to successful scientific exploration and understanding. For the future, the best thing to do is to listen to the astronauts when they're in orbit and when they come back. From up there, you know, it's one globe. And, you know, maybe that's naive, but I think if we think about it a little bit, maybe there is hope there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jim Head, planetary scientist at Brown University. Thank you very much.

HEAD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.