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U.S. Experts on China's Space Program Agree There Is No Race

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jul-2012 (Updated: 06-Jul-2012 01:01 AM)

China's successful Shenzhou-9 mission seems to have stirred interest in what impact, if any, China's space program should have on the U.S. space program.  Several experts on Chinese space activities have spoken at public meetings or published op-ed pieces in the past two weeks weighing in on the topic.   One issue on which they all agree is that there is no U.S.-China space race.

Some U.S. space program advocates have been attempting to reinvigorate NASA's activities by trying to resurrect the U.S.-Soviet space race paradigm of the 1960s that shaped the Apollo program. 

At a Marshall Institute-TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council symposium on June 29, hours after Shenzhou-9 landed, Leslee Gilbert, Vice President, Van Scoyoc Associates, took the opposite view, pointing out that the American people do not seem to care about China's human spaceflight program.   "China will have to do something new to get Americans' attention," she said, perhaps building a base on the Moon, but just going there would not be sufficient.  The former staff director for the House Science, Space and Technology committee argued that China is "not leading, but following."   Noting that many people paint U.S.-China space relationships in an either-or framework -- either racing or cooperating -- she concludes neither is likely in the near future, especially with the strong opposition to cooperation voiced by Members of Congress like Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).   Gilbert's major concern is that the American public lacks an "appetite for space" in general and "spurring a race with China won't fix it."   That interest "has to come from within."

Kevin Pollpeter, Deputy Director, East Asia Program, Defense Group, Inc., gave China credit for "hitting on all cylinders" over the past ten years.  He described a broadly based space program encompassing civil and military objectives, although the Chinese space program is under the purview of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) where such a distinction is not obvious.  Still, "China is not out to eat our lunch -- yet," he said.  Although China conducted one more launch than the United States last year, he said, we launched more satellites and Chinese satellites have "shorter lifetimes and are less capable." 

The Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng agreed with Gilbert and Pollpeter that there is no U.S.-China space race.  "If they are racing with anyone, it's with Japan and India," and it is "a marathon not a sprint," he said.  That is not to say that the Chinese space program does not pose challenges to the United States, he added.  China's successes in the Shenzhou program, for example, pose a strategic challenge by signalling to the rest of the world that China has sufficient technological confidence to take the risks associated with human spaceflight, he explained.  On an operational level, China has learned lessons from U.S. conflicts such as the Persian Gulf War that future conflicts will be fought under "modern informationalized conditions" and gathering information and quickly exploiting it is critical.  "Space is how you do that," he argued.  The United States and China are "not racing, but staring at each other warily."

At the symposium and in an op-ed in the Washington Times on July 4, Cheng went on to rue the fact that the United States does not trumpet its own successes, such as the Voyager spacecraft leaving the solar system or the X-37B landing after more than a year of automated flight.   "One thing we do badly is using space in a non-space context," he told the audience.  He reiterated that position in his op-ed, stating that "NASA's products are a de facto refutation of claims of American decline, and should be used as such."  He also warned against space cooperation with China and, domestically, advocated more engagement with the commercial sector.

Cheng also spoke to the National Research Council's Committee on NASA's Strategic Direction on June 25 along with Greg Kulacki from the Union of Concerned Scientists.   The two often clash on China space issues, but both agreed that there is no space race.  On that occasion, Cheng said "China is not racing the United States, it is building what it needs."  

Kulacki sounded the same theme, that China "has been a follower, not a leader, in space," adding that China "doesn't have the confidence to be a leader" in this area.  He argued strongly in favor of U.S.-China space cooperation, however, calling current U.S. policy "uninformed, misguided and counterproductive."

On the other hand, an individual who appears to have little expertise related to China's space program or anyone else's, argues that there is a space race and China is winning.   Douglas MacKinnon writes in the New York Times that "the humans who are now winning the space race come from the People's Republic of China."  MacKinnon says in the op-ed that he worked as a "consultant for NASA and the Space Shuttle team" after he left the government and has "always been a fan of humans in space."  Apart from that, he was a press secretary to former Senator Bob Dole, a writer for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, worked at DOD, and now is a columnist and author.  Focusing more on China's military space capabilities and objectives, his theme is that President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney should make American preeminence in space a campaign issue.  He asserts that early in his presidency Obama "contemplated combining the best of the space programs at the Pentagon and NASA to compete with the rapidly accelerating Chinese space program" and should "dust off those plans."




Higgs Boson Particle May Have Been Discovered-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jul-2012 (Updated: 05-Jul-2012 05:53 PM)

UPDATE:   Adds Dennis Overbye's wonderful explanation of the Higgs field in language definitely understandable by policy wonks.

The existence of the Higgs boson is fundamental to the Standard Model of physics and our understanding of everything in the universe -- some call it the "God particle."

Brian Vastag and Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post have written an eminently understandable layperson-friendly explanation of the Higgs boson and the significance of today's announcement.  They say the Higgs boson sets up a "sort of force field that permeates everything....It's the water the entire universe swims in."

Dennis Overbye writing in the New York Times offered the perfect explanation in language meant for policy wonks:    "...the Higgs boson is only the manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass.  Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous."

Higgs is 83 and still active in the particle physics community.  He was present at Geneva-based CERN today when the announcement was made, with a video feed to the International Conference on High Energy Physics being held in Melbourne, Australia.  CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, manages the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  The experiments were conducted using the LHC in 2011 and 2012.  Two years ago, CERN pledged to either prove or refute the Higgs boson theory using the LHC in two years in order to coincide with this conference according to the Washington Post. 

Many media outlets are reporting that the particle was discovered, but CERN officials and scientists involved in the research were more measured, insisting that the results are preliminary and still need to be validated. 

Two independent teams using different particle detectors, ATLAS and CMS, have been underway.  Both observed a new particle in the mass region around 125-126 GeV (gigaelectronvolts).   CERN quoted an ATLAS experiment spokeswoman, Fabiola Gianotti, as saying "a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication."  A CMS spokesman, Joe Incandela, said "[w]e know it must be a boson and it's the heaviest boson even found...The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks."

CERN itself added that "[p]ositive identification of the new particle's characteristics will take considerable time and data.   But whatever form the Higgs particle takes, our knowledge of the fundamental structure of matter is about to take a major step forward."



NOAA Satellite Imagery Shows "Derecho" Wind Storm That Hit Washington Area

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jul-2012 (Updated: 03-Jul-2012 06:35 PM)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released a video showing the formation and movement of a devastating wind storm that hit several states, including the Washington-Baltimore area, on Friday night Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).

The video shows a storm called a "derecho" form near Chicago and move east, wreaking havoc in its path.   The imagery is from NOAA's GOES East geostationary satellite.  Derechos are long-lived straight-line wind storms accompanied by showers or thunderstorms.  The storm knocked out electrical power, Internet service, and phone service to about 3 million customers from Ohio to New Jersey.  The Washington-Baltimore area reportedly had 1 million people without electricity at the height of the outage.   Although many customers have been restored, hundreds of thousands remain without power today. 

NOAA has been under a lot of criticism for its management of weather satellites and at a hearing two days before this storm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned of a potential gap in coverage from GOES satellites in the 2016-2017 time frame.  GAO said the first of a new series, GOES-R, may not meet its October 2015 launch date.   Concern had been focused on a potential data gap from NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites in that same time period.

Events of Interest: Week of July 2-6, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jul-2012 (Updated: 01-Jul-2012 04:54 PM)

School is out, Congress is out, and the electrical power is out in much of the Washington,DC area as the result of a terrible storm on Friday night with 70-80 mile per hour winds.  With temperatures in the 100 degree F range and many homes without air conditioning or refrigeration, a lot of people probably are looking forward to going to work tomorrow and -- hopefully --  to air-conditioned office buildings in the DC-area to debate space policy.  However, it is a quiet week not only in Washington, but everywhere.  The events we know of are listed below.

 Monday, July 2

Monday-Tuesday, July 2-3

  • NASA Advisory Council Heliophysics Subcommittee, NASA Headquarters
    • Monday, July 2, 9:00 am - 5:00 pm ET
    • Tuesday, July 3, 8:30 am - 5:00 pm ET



Soyuz TMA-03M Lands Safely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jul-2012 (Updated: 01-Jul-2012 04:36 AM)

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and European astronaut Andre Kuipers safely landed in Kazakhstan this morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). 

The three spent a total of 193 days in space, all but two of them aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The landing was at 4:14:48 EDT.

Three ISS Crew Members Getting Ready to Return Overnight (EDT)

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jun-2012 (Updated: 30-Jun-2012 06:14 PM)

Three International Space Station crew members are getting ready to return to Earth overnight, with undocking scheduled for 12:53 am July 1 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), about 7 hours from now.  Landing is expected in Kazakhstan at about 4:15 am EDT.

NASA's Don Pettit, Russia's Oleg Kononenko, and Europe's Andre Kuipers will return on their SoyuzTMA-03M spacecraft after about 6 months on ISS.  Three replacements are scheduled for launch on July 14 -- NASA's Suni Williams, Russia's Yuri Malenchenko, and Japan's Aki Hoshide. 

The ISS usually has six crew aboard, but during these crew rotations, only three staff the station for a couple of weeks.   The three who are remaining on ISS and will greet the new crew two weeks from now are NASA's Joe Acaba and Russia's Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin.

Pedro "Pete" Rustan: In Memoriam

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jun-2012 (Updated: 29-Jun-2012 06:55 PM)

Pedro "Pete" Rustan died yesterday after a long battle with cancer.   He was renowned in the space business for his determination and innovative ideas, such as the Clementine satellite that orbited the moon in the early 1990s.  A lifetime achievement award from Aviation Week & Space Technology earlier this year called him a "renaissance man."

Rustan escaped to the United States from Cuba at the age of 19.  He spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force, and perhaps his best known achievement during that phase of his career was Clementine.   A joint project between NASA and the Missile Defense Agency, one goal was to demonstrate that a small satellite could be built and launched quickly at a comparatively low cost.  The probe was built in just 22 months for $80 million. Although it did not accomplish all of its objectives, the data it returned about the possibility of water at the Moon's south pole catalyzed interest in renewed study of Earth's closest neighbor that continues to this day.

Rustan retired from the Air Force in 1997 and did consulting, but returned to the government after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Working at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and operates the nation's spy satellites, Rustan is credited with significantly improving U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.  

Aviation Week published an extended tribute to him in March when awarding him its lifetime achievement award that included the following paragraph, which captures who he was:

"In addition to Rustan's many technical achievements he has tirelessly challenged bureaucracy and business as usual.  'If someone doesn't answer the front door, go to the back door,' he likes to say.  'If they don't open the back door, climb through the window.  And if the window is locked, tear a hole through the wall.'  Such brashness has earned him both admirers and critics in the government's insular black world."

Visitation will be at the Mountcastle Funeral Home, 4143 Dale Blvd., Dale City, VA from 3:00-5:00 pm and 7:00-9:00 pm on July 5.  Funeral services are on Friday, July 6, at 11:00 am at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 12975 Purcell Rd., Manassas, VA.  In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to Capital Care Hospice, Memorial Sloan Kettering, or Our Lady of Charity of Cobre Foundation, P.O. Box 40368, Glen Oaks, NY, 11004.


Shenzhou-9 Lands Safely, but With a Bump

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2012 (Updated: 28-Jun-2012 10:53 PM)

China's Shenzhou-9 spacecraft landed as expected in Inner Mongolia at 10:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time tonight.  The landing marks the end of a successful mission that saw China's first crewed docking with its first space station, Tiangong-1, and the flight of China's first woman astronaut, Liu Yang.

China's English-language television broadcast on CCTV showed excellent video of varous phases of the landing, including the spacecraft descending on its parachute.  Like Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, small thrusters on Shenzhou spacecraft fire about 1 meter (3 feet) above the ground to cushion the landing.  It did appear that the thrusters fired, but the spacecraft hit the ground hard and flipped over.  At this moment, the crew is still inside being tended to by medical personnel as they readapt to gravity.

China has not yet released an official landing time, but Bob Christy at puts it at 02:00:16 GMT June 29 (10:00:16 pm June 28 EDT, or 10:00:16 am June 29 Beijing time).

United Technologies Admits to 576 Export Violations; Will Pay $75 Million

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2012 (Updated: 28-Jun-2012 06:47 PM)

The State Department announced a consent agreement today under which United Technologies Corporation (UTC) and three of its operating units or subsidiaries will pay $75 million in fines and penalties and take remedial actions for hundreds of civil violations of export control laws and regulations in its dealings with China.   UTC subsidiary Pratt & Whitney Canada  (P&W Canada) additionally pleaded guilty in a Connecticut court to a criminal violation.

UTC voluntarily disclosed most of the 576 violations to the U.S. Government beginning in 2006 according to the State Department.  Some of the violations took place in 2002-2003 and involved the sale of engine software by P&W Canada that is being used in Chinese military attack helicopters.  The software was of U.S. origin and governed by the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).  Because it voluntarily disclosed violations and cooperated with the investigation, the State Department did not debar the defense contractor.  However, it did impose a statutory debarment on some P&W Canada activities.

The State Department asserts that the consent agreement addresses not only the illegal exports, but "false and belated disclosures to the U.S. Government about these illegal exports, and many other compliance failures." While acknowledging the voluntary disclosures as mitigating factors, it decided to charge the company with 576 violations "given the harm to national security and the systemic, longstanding and repeated nature of certain violations," it said in a proposed charging letter.

The consent agreement will remain in effect for four years.  UTC will pay $20.7 million in fines, forfeitures and other penalties to the Justice Department, and $55 million to the State Department as a penalty.  The State Department suspended $20 million of the $55 million on the condition that it be used for remedial compliance measures.

Export control reform is a major goal of the aerospace industry, particularly satellite manufacturers.  Progress was recently made in that regard with release of the "Sec. 1248" report by the State and Defense Departments, and House-passage of an amendment to the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act to ease export controls for certain satellites. The export violations revealed today do not appear to involve satellites and under the House-passed language satellite exports to China would continue to be denied in any case.  

Thus, today's announcement may not complicate the satellite export debate, although it may undermine confidence that the aerospace industry has learned from the mistakes of the 1990s that led to the current strict export limits on satellites.

In an unrelated development, Canada's MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates (MDA) purchased Space Systems/Loral today for $875 million.   It was a Loral employee sending a letter to China without export approval in 1996 that initiated the chain of events that became known as the "Loral/Hughes" affair.  It led to a congressional investigation chaired by then-Rep. Christopher Cox.  The Cox Committee report concluded that Loral and Hughes Aircraft (a satellite manufacturer later bought by  Boeing) violated export laws in helping China determine why its satellite launches failed.  In response, Congress passed language in the FY1999 National Defense Authorization Act that put satellites back on the State Department's Munitions List with its ITAR regulations.  It also removed the President's authority to decide whether satellites are governed by ITAR or the dual-use Commerce Commerce List administered by the  Commerce Department.  The aerospace industry has been trying to undo that language ever since, claiming that ITAR restrictions put them at a significant competitive disadvantage with foreign companies and thereby harm the U.S. economy.

Chinese Astronauts Preparing for Return Tonight (EDT)-Update

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jun-2012 (Updated: 28-Jun-2012 09:25 AM)

UPDATE:   Bob Christy's calculation of a projected landing time of 02:03 GMT June 29 (10:03 pm tonight EDT) and the undocking time for Shenzhou-9 have been added.

China's three-person Shenzhou-9 crew is preparing to return to Earth about 10:00 pm tonight, June 28, Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), which will be 10:00 am June 29 Beijing time (or 02:00 GMT June 29).  

The crew was launched on June 16 and this is the longest of China's human space flight missions to date. 

China's space program takes place at a measured pace.   The first Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut, was launched in 2003 on Shenzhou-5.   Two years later China launched Shenzhou-6 with two astronauts.  The third mission, Shenzhou-7, took place three years after that, in 2008, with a three-person crew and the first Chinese spacewalk.   The current mission is the fourth to carry a crew.   Five other Shenzhou spacecraft have been launched without crews as test flights (Shenzhou 1-4, Shenzhou-8).  Shenzhou-6 was the longest mission until now, lasting five days.

Shenzhou-9 already has undocked from the Tiangong-1 space station module.  Liu Wang conducted a manual undocking according to China's Xinhua news service (in English).  One mission objective was to demonstrate manual docking and undocking as a test should automated systems fail.  The crew was launched on June 16 and docked with Tiangong-1 in automated mode two days later.   After spending several days adjusting to weightlessness, Liu Wang and mission commander Jing Haipeng reentered Shenzhou-9 and conducted preliminary tests in preparation for Liu Wang to perform a manual re-docking.   The third crew-member, Liu Yang, China's first woman astronaut, remained in Tiangong-1 during this exercise.  She has been in charge of biological and medical experiments.  Later, all three entered Shenzhou-9, undocked, and manually redocked.

Xinhua did not announce the time that Shenzhou-9 undocked from Tiangong-1, but said the crew had reentered the capsule at 6:00 am Beijing Time June 28 (6:00 pm June 27 EDT).  Bob Christy at said undocking was at 9:22 am Beijing time June 28 (01:22 GMT; 9:22 pm June 27 EDT) and calculates that landing will be at 02:03 GMT June 29 (10:03 pm tonight EDT).

Tiangong-1 will be boosted to a higher orbit until China is ready to launch the next crew, expected next year. 

Correction:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that one of the three crew remained on Tiangong-1 during the manual docking exercise, but all three were in Shenzhou-9 when the spacecraft separated from and then redocked with Tiangong-1.  It was during a preliminary test that two were in Shenzhou-9 and one remained in Tiangong-1;  the two vehicles remained docked together during that test.

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