MONTREAL – Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is calling for more co-operation with China in space and he wants it to be part of any international effort to return to the moon.
And he’s not alone in his thinking. Space experts agree the Chinese can no longer be left out.
“I think right now a lot of people see it as kind of crazy to co-operate with the Chinese, but I think it’s the next logical step,” Hadfield recently told The Canadian Press.
China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003 and Hadfield noted the country’s ambitious space program aims to eventually put an astronaut on the moon.
On Dec. 15, a Chinese Chang’e 3 rocket landed a rover on the lunar surface, making China the third country to do so after the United States and the former Soviet Union.
It was the world’s first soft landing of a space probe on the moon in nearly four decades.
He also pointed out that China launched an experimental space station in 2011. It will be replaced with a more permanent one which will be completed in 2020.
A Chinese astronaut said in September his country is willing to open its space station to foreign astronauts and even train them for such missions.
China was barred from participating in the current orbiting space station, largely because of U.S. objections over political differences.
Hadfield added that after the Russians launched the Mir Space Station in February 1986, other nations dropped in for a visit during its 15 years in orbit.
NASA says on its website that Mir hosted 125 cosmonauts and astronauts from 12 different nations before it was deorbited and sunk into the ocean in 2001.
Hadfield, who became a Canadian astronaut in 1992, visited Mir in November 1995 on the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis. He was the only Canadian to ever board the Russian space station.
“If you predicted in 1989 that I would fly on an American shuttle to go build a Russian spaceship, people would have said you were crazy,” said Hadfield, who last March became the first Canadian to command the International Space Station.
“So I think looking forward, there’s a great opportunity to include the Chinese in the world space program — the international space program.”
Hadfield said a logical progression would be to include as many countries as possible in an international mission beyond Earth — “hopefully including China and India and the other countries that have launch capability and then progress to the next stepping stone, the next natural waypoint out to space, which is the moon.”
Iain Christie, executive vice-president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, says China’s presence in space cannot be ignored. The association represents the interests of more than 700 aerospace companies across Canada.
“I think China is back where we were in North America 50 years ago,” he said in an interview from Ottawa. “They’re excited about space, they’re not spending their time justifying why they’re in space, they’re spending their time justifying why they’re not doing more.
“I am hopeful that their enthusiasm for space becomes infectious to the rest of us.”
Christie said decisions will have to be made in the coming years.
“We’re going to have to decide what to do about engaging with China in space — whether it’s to be more collaborative or more competitive,” he said. “I don’t know which one we’ll choose.”
Ron Holdway, an independent space consultant, says there will eventually be closer relationships with the Chinese.
“I think that’s the way we’re inevitably headed because space is so expensive and the Chinese are proving to be quite good at it and willing to share the cost,” he said in an interview.
Holdway, a former vice-president with COM DEV, a Canadian space technology company, added there’s already a certain amount of co-operation between the United States and China in areas like weather satellites and data sharing.
“There’s also limited co-operation on science programs and that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s natural that it starts in areas that have nothing to do with defence and security.
“But I think the reality is that, just like we did with the Russians, we will get past political obstacles and move on to greater co-operation because that’s what common sense says you should do.”
Holdway said areas of co-operation with China may include trips to the moon or Mars or other sorts of manned and unmanned interplanetary exploration.
Walt Natynczyk, the new president of the Canadian Space Agency, was in China in September to attend the annual International Astronautical Congress in Beijing. It was described as an opportunity to visit some major space actors in the country.
Meantime, as Natynczyk continues work on a long-term space plan, Hadfield said Canada must look at where the world’s space program is headed.
“Canada needs to choose what makes sense to us,” he said. “There’s so much technology that we need in power generation, in navigation, in communications, in environmental recycling — there’s all sorts of technical issues that we need to solve that will also have use for us here back in Canada.”
Hadfield attracted worldwide attention with his dramatic photos of the Earth, his tweets and his “Space Oddity” video during his space station visit which began when he blasted off in December 2012. He returned to Earth in mid-May 2013. The David Bowie cover has had close to 20 million views on YouTube.
Hadfield also said the question he gets asked the most by interviewers during his current book promotional tour is: How do astronauts go to the bathroom in space?
“There’s a YouTube clip that’s been seen a million times — even on orbit I carefully took the camera and showed people how the urinal works, where the solid waste goes. it’s fundamental human curiosity.
It’s the number one and number two question,” he joked.
(With files from The Associated Press)