Space exploration experts from around the world convene in Prague next week for the annual International Astronautical Congress.
There's a chance for real progress in making space travel a truly global endeavor, but it isn't a sure thing.
As usual, the leaders of the world's major space agencies will be attending. NASA administrator Charles Bolden will be joined on a heads-of-agency panel Monday by his counterparts from Russia, Europe, Japan and India to discuss the crossroads we find ourselves facing as the space shuttle fleet retires without a clear U.S. replacement in sight. It may well be one of those moments that sets the path ahead in space for a generation or more.
The shuttle will leave behind the International Space Station. There the spacefaring nations of the world are likely to spend the next decade or so perfecting the political approach that enabled the station's assembly in orbit, as they use its unique environment to press some of the boundaries of science.
Although the Indian Space Research Organization is not officially a station partner, its chairman - Dr. K. Radhakrishnan - can take his seat on the panel as an equal, given his ambitious plans to make his country the fourth able to send humans into space.
China, only the third nation to achieve human spaceflight, won't be part of the public discussion. Originally the panel was to have included Chen Qiufa, the new head of the China National Space Administration, but he has dropped off the latest agenda.
That may be a function of uncertainty in Beijing over who should head Chinese space efforts. Last year, at the IAC in Daejeon, South Korea, China also was absent from the heads-of-agency panel. Sun Laiyan, then the CNSA administrator, was listed as a participant but failed to appear. Instead, the China Manned Space Engineering Office mounted a last-minute presentation of its plans to launch a small space station next year and expand it stepwise as it builds on the three successful human spaceflights it already has conducted.
This year Zhou Jianping, the U.S.-educated head of the China Manned Space Engineering Program -- the technical arm of the military office that controls China's human spaceflight program -- will lead a delegation to Prague. His schedule isn't public, but his presence -- and Chen's absence -- suggests China has decided how to handle its open invitation for Bolden to visit its space facilities."Last night, ‘Sasha’ Skvortsov (our current ISS Commander) and I sat together in the Russian Service Module for nearly three hours talking about this event coming up on Wednesday. Though purely symbolic at this point, the Change of Command of a truly International Space Station from an active duty Russian Colonel to an active duty U.S. Army Colonel is something only dreamers could have imagined for our generation. The road to this point has been bumpy and crooked and seemingly impassable at times, but it is a road carved out and paved with the blood, sweat, and tears of patriots and dreamers. Sasha was in tears last night as he showed me photos of his MiG flying days and remembered friends that he had lost in their own skirmishes in Afghanistan and other places that I never knew about. He is a patriot through and through and we promised each other to brand this moment into history and pass the torch to our children and grandchildren. So that all that is left are the stories, and only memories of the struggle.
When Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao met in Beijing 10-and-a-half months ago, their joint statement included a call for the NASA administrator to meet with his Chinese counterpart -- without specifying who that might be. Since then the invitation has been on hold.
Bolden had tentatively planned to visit China last spring, but the U.S. State Dept. is said to have nixed that trip while it coordinated broader U.S. policy toward China. At that time Wang Wenbao, head of the manned space engineering office, told U.S. reporters China was ready to discuss interface parameters for docking the Shenzhou crew vehicle to the ISS.
Maybe in Prague the two sides will be able to work out a way to move in that direction, starting with a Bolden visit to Beijing. There are a lot of hurdles in the way of Chinese participation in international human spaceflight, not least the long-standing and deep distrust in the West over the military side of the Chinese space program.
But as Lori Garver, Bolden's deputy, has pointed out when asked about the potential for space cooperation with China, there is a long diplomatic history of using the hostile environment beyond the atmosphere to encourage closer ties on Earth. That was brought home dramatically this week in an e-mail from Doug Wheelock, the new commander of the ISS, about a conversation he had with his predecessor the night before the change-of-command ceremony.
Here's part of what he wrote:
He was showing me pictures of his MiG-31 fighter days just last night. Of course, I recognized the MiG from my "Friend or Foe" flash cards that I memorized in days gone by. It wasn’t long ago that I would expect to see the MiG through the crosshairs of a gun sight … not while sharing memories with a close friend and dreaming of the wonders to come for our children. The dreams that we dare to dream…
It’s all in a day’s work aboard the International Space Station."