China’s grand space ambitions

Science & Health

NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao discusses the history of Sino-American space collaboration, U.S. attitudes toward China's space program, and China's impressive accomplishments and ambitions for the final frontier.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Leroy Chiao.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily newly designed China Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel hill, North Carolina. Joining me from tabled Goldkorn Holler in the bushes and brambles of middle Tennessee, just back from his holiday with South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol, where he proved much more fun company than Nancy Pelosi would’ve been. It’s the one and only Jīn Yùmí 金玉米, otherwise known as Jeremy Goldkorn. Jeremy, how are you, man? Greet the people, won’t you?

Jeremy Goldkorn: Hey Kaiser. I think that should be, what is it in Korean? Kim. Jin is Kim. It should be Kim Oksusu or something like that. Anyways, it’s good to be back.

Kaiser: You guys got to be close buddies then I suppose.

Jeremy: Oh yeah, it was fun.

Kaiser: Where’d you holiday? Just anything to dodge Pelosi.

Anyway, today on Sinica, I am absolutely delighted to have as our guest, the astronaut Leroy Chiao. Not only was Leroy the first Chinese American in space, but he was also on three space shuttle flights, and was Mission Commander of Expedition 10 to the International Space Station from October 2004 to April 2005. And I trust we are going to hear about those amazing experiences.

Jeremy: Leroy also happens to be one of the Americans who is most knowledgeable about the Chinese Space Program, and we’ll be asking him quite a bit about that too. Leroy joins us from Colorado Springs. Leroy, welcome to Sinica.

Leroy Chiao: Great. Thank you very much.

Kaiser: Fantastic to have you here. I know we actually tried to do this back in 2017. We had originally planned to interview you at a live show taped in front of an audience, but that venue fell through. But I have to say, looking back at the questions that I had written back then, it was like a strange time capsule. So very much has changed, not only in terms of the accomplishments in the space exploration field, up from both the United States and China, but also in American domestic politics and in America’s relationships with the other two major space faring nations, China and Russia. But Leroy, before we get into that, let’s start with your own story. Your parents are originally from China, in fact, from Shandong Province as I understand. And went to Taiwan, like mine did, before immigrating to the U.S. And you grew up bilingual. What was your connection to China?

Leroy: Sure. Yeah, my parents were both originally both from Shandong Province. My father was from a small farming community on the western side of the province, and my mother was born in the beautiful port city of Qingdao. Although she moved, her family moved to Xuzhou not long after she was born, just a few years later. But yeah, they did make the journey to America through Taiwan, both arriving in Taiwan right around the age of 12 or 13. They met at university there and they got married. And my older sister was actually born on Taiwan.

So, by the time I was born, they had immigrated to the United States and we did grow up bilingual. My parents spoke Chinese at home and kind of kept elements of the Chinese culture, but of course, we lived in mainstream American communities. And so, especially once we started going to school, then we were pretty much mostly with, I mean, probably 99%, with regular white Americans, and so grew up with the foot in both cultures, in both languages.

Kaiser: So, exactly like my life, except that you became an astronaut and I didn’t.

Jeremy: You became a podcaster. Oh, well, Kaiser.

Kaiser: Oh, well.

Jeremy: Leroy, can you tell us a bit about your path to becoming an astronaut? You took the scientist route, I understand, rather than the Air Force route.

Leroy: That’s correct. And so, it’s something I had dreamed about since I was young. I was eight years old, almost nine years old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. I’d always been interested in airplanes and flying and then when rockets came along with rockets. But it was that event, the Apollo 11 landing, where I went out and looked out at the moon later and said, “Wow, almost a quarter million miles away there, these guys are getting ready to take those first steps.” And I said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be like those guys that are on the moon.” So, I never forgot that dream. I was also always interested in technical things. So, going into a course of engineering was completely natural for me to do. Actually, when I was an undergraduate …

Kaiser: At Berkeley, by the way, go Bears.

Leroy: Yeah, at Berkeley, go Bears. And I was thinking about, well, what do I want to do with my degree? I went back to my dream of trying to become an astronaut. And so, I actually did go over to the Air Force and joined Air Force ROTC. I was in there for a number of weeks, I think, about 13 weeks or so, but then I took a medical exam, and unbeknownst to me at the time, the exam showed that my left eye was no longer perfect, so I wouldn’t be a candidate to be an Air Force pilot. Therefore, I, fortunately, had not signed on the dotted line yet, committing myself to that, so I was able to get out of that. But also, around that time, the Shuttle program was starting to get going and that opened up a lot of opportunities for civilian engineers and scientists. And so I decided that I would try to go that route.

Kaiser: I’m just trying to figure out how it is that an ABC kid in America ended up with good vision at all by college.

Leroy: Yeah, you’re right. You’re right. Yeah, so, by the time I started taking flying lessons in graduate school, my left eye had gotten a little bit worse, and so I needed to actually get a pair of glasses to technically be okay to get in an airplane and even though I didn’t need them to drive. But anyway, it worked out and fortunately the standards for mission specialist astronauts, like I was, are a little less stringent than those for pilot astronauts, the military test pilots, and so I was able to qualify for NASA.

Kaiser: Fantastic.

Jeremy: And so, you ended up actually being on the 100th space shuttle flight in 2000, on the Discovery, isn’t that, right?

Leroy: That’s correct. Yeah, my third shuttle mission, which was the first major assembly, or second major assembly mission of the International Space Station program turned out to be the 100th shuttle mission.

Jeremy: And how many shuttle missions did you fly in total?

Leroy: In total, I flew three shuttle missions. My first mission was aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1994, and then Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1996, and finally, Space Shuttle Discovery in 2000.

Kaiser: How did the tragedies rock you personally? I mean, that must have just been really… I mean, could have been you.

Leroy: Well, the first accident, the Columbia… I mean, I’m sorry, the Challenger accident happened when I was in graduate school.

Kaiser: Yeah, ‘86, right?

Leroy: Yeah, right in ‘86. And so, I had just sent away to NASA asking for an application package to become an astronaut and had received it probably just a week or so before the accident. And so, it was pretty, well, pretty shocking to the entire nation, but it didn’t deter me at all. I went ahead and filled that application out and mailed it in probably a week after the accident happened.

Kaiser: Wow.

Leroy: Didn’t slow me down at all for wanting to join NASA. Unfortunately, at that application, I hadn’t quite finished my doctor’s degrees and I didn’t have that much job experience, but I decided to go ahead and fill an application out anyway. But they did return it to me saying, “Well, you don’t quite qualify yet, so finish your degree and get a little more work experience and then reapply,” which I did.

Jeremy: And were your parents okay with all of this?

Leroy: They were very Chinese, as you can imagine.

Jeremy: That’s why I’m asking.

Leroy: Both of them were engineers. And so, they were pleased that I was studying engineering and they saw this astronaut thing as well. That’s kind of cute that he wants to apply to be an astronaut. I don’t think either of them expected I would ever be accepted. So, it was fine for me to go ahead and do that, but as long as I was continuing with engineering. Even after I was accepted by NASA, my dad would tell people, “Well, this is just something he’s going to go off for a few years, and I’m sure he’ll return to a real job.”

Jeremy: It’s a phase.

Kaiser: Still in that phase. Tell us about your months on the International Space Station. How long exactly were you up there for? And I guess, what was it like physically and psychologically? As I remember, Scott Kelly’s book about his year in space, it had some pretty harrowing tales about the effects of that on the body and on the mind.

Leroy: Right. My fourth mission, I’d flown those three space shuttle missions, and on the fourth mission, I flew on a Russian rocket, on Soyuz TMA-5, and we launched to the International Space Station. And I served as a commander and NASA science officer for six and a half months during Expedition 10. So, that was quite a different experience. Shuttle missions are somewhere between one and two weeks in duration, depending on what you’re doing. And then this was a whole different thing. Of course, we were up there for 193 days in total. So, we had a long time to think about it.

The training flow was about three and a half years. Very involved, to spend half of that time, roughly, in Russia, in Star City outside of Moscow, because, of course, we had to move back and forth, both the Russian cosmonauts and the Americans. We had to learn each other’s languages. We had to learn about each other’s modules and mission controls, work with each other’s mission control centers and all that. So, we had to learn each other’s languages, and pretty much to an affluent level because we had to learn all these things.

I had to function as a co-pilot, basically, of the Russian spacecraft going up and down. So, there was a lot of travel, a lot of commitment, but it was a very rewarding experience. I’ve always enjoyed international travel, but this was really kind of a deeper immersion, actually getting to live in another culture for extended periods of time. And then getting to fly that mission, very different from a two-week Shuttle mission. But we had a long time to think about it and prepare ourselves for this journey that was gonna take us up there and leave us up there for over half a year.

I did take a couple of days to think about it when… The chief astronaut first approached me about flying a station mission. It’s not for everyone living half a year or more in a series of tin cans, basically, but I did decide to accept that challenge of the training, the three and a half years of training and getting to go have that experience aboard the ISS. And I’m glad I did. The physical effects, you mentioned, even on short shuttle missions, you get affected by going up and coming back. The long flight, you basically have similar symptoms, but they’re a little more intense because you’ve been up there for so long and it takes a little longer for them to go away.

But basically, what you notice physically, the first time you go into space, or anytime you go into space is right at main engine cutoff, when you’re weightless, you get very dizzy. And that’s because your balance system, the little stones in your [inner ear], the otoliths are jostling around, telling your brain that you’re rotating in three axes, but your eyes tell you you’re not. So, that disparity causes you to get very dizzy, and that can make you feel nauseous, of course, and disoriented, and things like that. You feel very full-headed because there’s no longer gravity pulling all the blood and fluids down into your lower extremity, so they come up into your chest. And people, if you look at astronauts, the first few days here in space, they’re really puffy.

Their faces are really puff out from that extra pressure. It feels like you’re standing on your head or laying heads down on an incline. And in fact, over the first couple of days of space flight, your body will basically eliminate around two liters of water. Just imagine one of those big soda bottles, that’s how much less water, on average, your body is carrying while it’s up in space.

Kaiser: Wow.

Leroy: When you come back down, you’ve gotta reverse all that. Your brain has forgotten, over the course of the first day or two, your brain forgets, just ignores those signals coming from your inner ear. But when you come back, you start picking up those senses again, and then your brain has already forgotten what to do. Even after a short shuttle mission, your brain’s forgotten what to do with those signals. And so, you feel dizzy again, when you come back into gravity, you can feel nauseous. It’s hard to get up and walk a straight line. Again, it goes away after a couple of days, more or less. After a long flight, it takes more like… We took a week, which is very quick.

It usually takes most crews two or three weeks, or even four weeks for you to start feeling normal again. Yeah, so it takes a toll on the body for sure. There are other things that happen to you in space. Of course, you’re exposed to higher levels of radiation because we don’t have the protective effects of the atmosphere in lower earth orbit. We still have the Van Allen belts are above us, the radiation belts, but we don’t have the benefit of our air, basically, kind of attenuating the radiation from the sun and the galactic cosmic radiation that’s everywhere in the universe. So, that kind of has implications possibly for long-term health. There are subtle changes to the immune system. Your red cell count goes down, your white cell count goes up.

We don’t really know exactly why. And you may have seen in the news in the last 15, almost about 15ish years, we started noticing astronauts coming back, in fact, over 70% of astronauts coming back from these long missions with changes in their vision. And sometimes, in some cases, permanent eye damage.

Kaiser: Wow.

Leroy: We really have some ideas, what it could be, but even after all these years, we don’t have that smoking gun, if you will. And we don’t know why it affects some people, it doesn’t affect other people. To date, I don’t believe any women have been affected, but that may simply be that we haven’t flown enough women on these long flights for it to manifest itself. This is just kind of a few examples of some of the medical challenges, the biomedical challenges of long duration space flight. And we really don’t know what’s going to happen if, and when we do send a crew to Mars.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking.

Leroy: Because now you’re flying beyond the protective magnetic fields, the radiation belts. And so, now you’re going to be exposed to a lot more radiation. But this is expiration. It’s not without risk

Jeremy: That’s why it’s only for the brave. So, this being a show about China, let’s move there now, Leroy. You were the first American, as I understand it, to be allowed to enter the Taikonaut Center of China in 2006, and you’ve been back several times. What exactly is the Taikonaut Center, and what can you tell us about it?

Leroy: Right. So, the Astronaut Center of China is located in Beijing.

Jeremy: Astronaut Center, is that what we should call it? Not Taikonaut?

Leroy: Yeah, it’s called the ACC, Astronaut Center of China. It’s located on the outskirts of Beijing and it’s basically the functional equivalent of Star City in Russia or the Johnson Space Center in Houston that’s basically the headquarters of astronauts in human space flight. Yeah, I was the first American to be allowed in, in 2006. And it was really fabulous to go in there and get to meet Yáng Lìwěi 杨利伟 way, the first Chinese national astronaut and the crew of the second mission as well. And we spent some time together and got to talk, discuss a little bit about what their missions were like and what my missions were like. And then, subsequently, over the next several years, I went back a few more times, several more times as a matter of fact.

But that was back when China was extremely interested. I mean, they were just starting to fly their own astronauts into space and they were extremely interested in working together on the International Space Station, joining the ISS program. There was a lot of, and not just in space exploration, but in all areas, there was a lot of a big push for international collaboration. So, it was a time of great hope and great anticipation, which unfortunately didn’t stand the test of time where we are nowadays politically. And including in the Space Program, some years ago my contacts in the space business over there, they started not really responding that much or even not responding at all to any emails or things like that, that I would send over.

And I think that’s because of the policies changed when Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 took office over there, took over and became very nationalistic about everything they’re doing, especially space exploration. I think Xi sees that as well, as all countries do, as something to be proud of showing their nation’s technical prowess and things like that. So, unfortunately, I don’t know that I would be allowed back over to the Astronaut Center of China. These days, they’re very much going it alone. They’ve got their Space Station well underway, almost completed with construction, that looks like they’ll probably get that done the next year or two. We’re, unfortunately, separating and… Well, not separating when we’re never working together, but during those early years, I really was advocating for working with China, using our model of working with the Russians as a way forward that we could also pursue with China.

Kaiser: Exactly. So, you’re somebody who has collaborated closely with both the Russians and Chinese. Obviously, this year has been really, really rough for somebody with fond memories, presumably of both. These days cooperation with China, let alone Russia, is just like this distant memory, right? But let’s stick with that happier time for just a bit here back before the Wolf Amendment, before the Cox Report, before the whole kerfuffle over the Hughes and Loral satellite launches. What, for you, was the sort of the peak of collaboration between China and the United States, the peak before everything kind of went sour?

Leroy: Informally, I began talking to the Chinese about possibly working together. I’d gotten to know some people who were fairly senior in their human spaceflight program. The response back was positive. They were interested in working together. There was great optimism. In 2008 to 2009, I was on a White House-appointed committee called the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. And President Obama had just been inaugurated and his pick for NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden. He and Charlie were both big advocates of international collaboration, especially trying to open things up with countries like China.

And so, that was a great time. There was great potential. We had a NASA administrator and a president who was very much in favor of doing more with China. And so, if it was going to get done, that would be the time. My work on that committee, I put forward those ideas to the rest of the committee members. But there was such a wall of some very influential members of Congress, you mentioned Congressman Wolf.

Kaiser: Frank Wolf of Virginia. Yeah.

Leroy: And there are a few others also that are still in the Congress who are just as anti-working with Chinese on anything as you can be. They were able to get language inserted into the NASA, into the appropriations bills and things like that, that basically said NASA is not allowed to do anything with China in spaceflight. They’re not allowed to spend any money supporting any kind of bilateral efforts. In other words, we could still work multilaterally if there were meetings involving several different countries of doing spaceflight, then we can participate, even if China’s there, but it was interpreted down to the point where NASA would not allow Chinese journalists to cover some of the last shuttle launches. Because technically, that would’ve been spending money to get their clearances and their badges to come in on site at NASA. That would’ve been technically spending government money on Chinese representatives of their space industry.

That’s how bad things were, even though we had a president and NASA administrator who were very much in favor of trying to do more work with China in that area. My thinking and a lot of people’s thinking those days, back then, was “look, we were able to make this work with Russia. The partnership at that point was working extremely well. And it arguably was making the relationship better overall between our countries and other areas too.” And so, the argument said, well, gosh, why don’t we do this with China? Why don’t we have an astronaut exchange, much like we did with the Russians in the beginning? We could fly an American aboard a Chinese spacecraft and we could fly a Chinese aboard one of the last shuttle missions, perhaps even going to ISS, and getting to spend a short amount of time aboard ISS.

There was a time of great hope and positivity. And I remember we had a conference in Houston called the International Space Medicine Summit, which still goes on by the way. And we had some senior officials from the Chinese Space Agency. And back then, before the Wolf Amendments and all that, we were able to take them on site for tours at the Johnson Space Center. And we went through the mission control centers. And I remember bringing them to one room where we were watching, it was one of the last Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. So, we were watching it live, watching a spacewalk being conducted. And they were just watching this, kind of amazed and because they hadn’t done space walks yet.

And then we went to another control room, and there, we were watching live operations aboard the International Space Station. And we were making it look easy, which NASA was pretty good at. One thing we really excelled at was operations and space operations. And so, the Chinese were just so impressed and they were very eager to work with us, but none of that came to fruition.

Kaiser: Jeremy, can you imagine Congress scuttling U.S.-China relations? I’ve never heard of anything like that happening.

Jeremy: Leroy, can you talk a little bit about what led up to that? Because, if I’m not mistaken, the Wolf Amendment was signed, so that was Congress banning NASA from cooperating with China. That was in 2011, which seems like prehistory. I mean, Xi Jinping wasn’t even in power. What caused the hostility to China in the area of space at that time?

Leroy: There was a deep suspicion of trying to gather intelligence and secrets. And, of course, those things go on. Of course, China was trying to spy on the U.S., and I don’t know how successful they were, just like Russia was continuing to try to spy on the U.S., just like we try to spy on both of those countries. And everybody who can is trying to spy on each other, right? That’s no secret. That’s no… should come as no surprise. Why particularly China? Well, I’m sure China was maybe being more aggressive about it, trying to catch up technically. But my point with space cooperation, civil space cooperation is like, look, we’ve been working with the Russian since the early mid-‘90s, and I’m sure they have been trying to get more understanding of things that we’re doing.

But to my knowledge, there’s been no improper technical transfer in either direction. And so, the controls in place are working. And so, why couldn’t we use the same controls with China, if we would decide to work together in civil space? And plus, I said, “There’s nothing classified that we’re doing at NASA.” NASA’s a civil space agency. The only thing practical that the Chinese might learn from working with us is how to smoothly run a space station. We don’t work on guidance systems. The companies that build the missiles, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, they’re the ones that work on guidance systems. They’re the ones that work on advanced propulsion. There’s really nothing that they could really steal from NASA, working with us on ISS.

But I think the Congress, the members of Congress who were so against doing anything with China saw China as the next big threat. Admittedly, of course, they are definitely a threat to the U.S., just like Russia’s a threat, but China’s probably a bigger threat because frankly, they have more capability. Their military’s on the way up, and Russia’s military, as we’ve seen their performance in the Ukraine, they’re very clearly on the way down. I understand those concerns, but at the same time, my position was, and still is that, hey, we could still work together and put safeguards in place so we don’t have improper tech transfer. But of course, these days, I don’t think China’s interested in doing it anyway.

Kaiser: Yeah. True, true, true. Jeremy, I don’t know if you remember, but Frank Wolf from Virginia, he was actually the same congressman who basically forced the State Department to cancel procurement of Lenovo computers. I think they were ThinkPads. It was like only a couple of years after Lenovo had acquired the IBM PC division, but yeah, anyway, that was Wolf. Meanwhile, Leroy, in the time since we were last planning on speaking since 2017, China has made really significant advances in its space program and has gotten even more ambitious if I’m not mistaken. What would you list as the most important accomplishments of recent years in the Chinese Space Program? And what among the things that China has planned for the next decade or so, do you think, are the most exciting or the most scientifically significant?

Leroy: Sure. Since those days, China really has made great strides. I mean, I talked a bit about their space station, and so they just added a new module onto that station just a week or so ago. They’ve got one more module they’re going to add. And so, really, what they’ve created is kind of a small, medium-size space station, much, much smaller than the ISS, but there’s an argument to be made that that actually is a better operating size. In other words, you’ve got this complex, it’s not so big, and so complicated that you’ve gotta do all this maintenance work, which we have to do on ISS, but you’ve got a smaller lab that doesn’t take as much maintenance work. So, arguably, maybe you can spend a greater percentage of your time up there doing scientific research.

So, they’ve got that going. They’ve conducted several space walks to work on building the complex out. So, they’ve got that capability. That seems to be working well for them. They’ve invited other countries. In fact, pretty much all of the partners on the International Space Station have been invited, and the Europeans, and some other partners have been talking to China about cooperating together. Some of the European astronauts have gone over and done some training with the Chinese astronauts over the years, over the last several years. So, they are really working hard to take the baton, if you will, when we decommission ISS in around 2030.

They’ve also made great strides in other areas too. They put a rover out on the far side of the moon for the very first time. And they put a relay satellite at what’s called the second Lagrange point between the… with the earth and the sun, which is beyond the moon, and beyond the earth and the moon by quite some distance. But anyway, they have a satellite there in what’s called a halo orbit around this point where the gravitational forces balance out so it doesn’t take much fuel to stay there. And they relay signals from this rover on the far side, because there’s no line of sight on the far side of the moon back to the earth. And so, it’s being able to relay signals back of its observations, and photographs, videos. So, they’ve shown a very high degree of sophistication in both their human spaceflight programs and their unmanned space programs too.

The exciting things to look forward to, of course, they’re going to have their… Well, they’ve got their own Mars rover going on up there too.

Kaiser: Yeah, Zhurong (祝融 Zhùróng). Yeah.

Leroy: I don’t think it’s as sophisticated as Curiosity and Perseverance, but still quite a good accomplishment in their first Rover, and it’s working. They are planning, of course, it’s no secret, they’re planning to send humans to the moon. They haven’t nailed down a definite time yet, but they say in the 2030s, they plan to land their own astronauts on the moon. So, they’re in it for the long haul, the long game, not surprisingly, culturally, that makes sense. I think we’re going to see them continue to make the steady progress.

Kaiser: One of the projects that I’m curious about is Xuntian (巡天 Xún Tiān), they had launched this space telescope where they had plans for a very large space telescope. It’s supposed to be like 300 times larger in coverage than the Hubble, but of course, like the rest of America, I’ve been devouring the images from the Webb Space Telescope.

Leroy: Oh yes. Right.

Kaiser: Is this still something that’s planned? And is Xuntian something comparable to Webb, or is Webb way out ahead?

Leroy: I don’t know too much about the telescope. I don’t know too much about their telescope. Unfortunately, I haven’t read too much about it. I don’t expect it would be as sophisticated as the Webb. The Webb is…

Kaiser: Just crazy. Yeah.

Leroy: … leaps and bounds ahead of Hubble. And it’s out there at Lagrange point L2 two as well. It features a cryocooled mirror. And why it’s important, why that’s important is it’s making infrared observations almost to the edge of the Big Bang to the edge of the universe, 13 and a half or so billion light years away. So, you need to have a very cold mirror and you need to not have these heat sources like the earth and the sun in the line of sight that would interfere with these observations. I would be surprised if the Chinese telescope is as sophisticated as the Webb. Webb Telescope is performing, by all reports, flawlessly. Unfortunately, did take an impact, some kind of a space debris impact that damaged some of the panels. But it was not a surprise that it was going to take impacts over its lifetime, but it still continued to perform extremely well.

Jeremy: So, most of the time, I lived in China for 20 years, Leroy, and most of that time was the big boom in building in cities.

Leroy: Sure.

Jeremy: The site of migrant workers with yellow hard hats has always sort of inspired in me this dream about seeing the kind of space suit equivalent, space-suited equivalent of the yellow hard-hated migrant work on the moon, digging holes and building stuff. But anyway, my fantasy, how far along is China towards what I believe is its ambition of creating a permanent moon base?

Leroy: I think there’s still a ways off of that. Now, it’s a huge leap from getting humans to the moon, exploring, like we did in Apollo, and then establishing a permanent base. So, it’s a pretty big leap between the two. I mean, even the U.S. doesn’t really have plans right now to set up a permanent base. We talk about setting up a tended base, perhaps, using the gateway as a jumping-off point and a relay point, if you will, in orbit around the moon, and then going down to the surface to perhaps, for lack of a better analogy, like a summer home. Go down there and activate it and then do your operations and then come back.

Jeremy: Camping. Camping on the moon.

Leroy: And, of course, talking about a colony there, it would need to be sustained from the earth. You’d have to have a constant supply chain of everything, including oxygen. I mean, there, you could tell a story of how you could look for ice down on subterranean ice, bring it up, have some big power source, maybe a nuclear reactor of some sort that you could crack oxygen, use that to breathe and drink the ice water. Things like that. But I think you’re going to be hard-pressed to be able to create any food down there. And so, you’re going to depend on the supply chain from earth. Same with Mars, except it’s a harder problem because it’s farther away. You could tell a story how you’re going to build a colony on Mars.

It’s one thing to explore it, but to build a colony. Of course, Elon Musk, I’ve done a little work for SpaceX over the years and got to meet him a couple of times, not recently, but over the years. And he has these, what sound like pretty outlandish plans, but if Tesla and SpaceX are any barometers, don’t count him out. He’s done a lot of things the experts all said couldn’t be done. So, if anyone’s going to build a colony, probably he will.

Jeremy: Speaking of SpaceX, can we talk a bit about private space companies in China which are relatively new? We know, on the outside world, a little bit about OneSpace and LandSpace, but there are quite a few private sector Chinese rocketry and space companies.

Leroy: Unfortunately, I don’t know too much about them. I mean, I’ve read about some of them and was frankly, amazed that China was gonna allow these commercial space companies to exist and compete, if you will, with the government programs. But they haven’t had much success. I remember one of the outfits tried to launch a payload into orbit a year or two ago, and it didn’t work out too well. I’m not sure if any of them have had any successes in launching satellites or anything else to orbit.

Kaiser: What do we know, Leroy, about public opinion in China towards its space program? I mean, my sense was always that there were debates that are probably familiar to Americans, same sorts of things like they would always raise terrestrial or even domestic concerns. There are still homeless people here, millions of people living in poverty. Why are we going to spend all this money on space exploration? Others would very invariably just counter that, hey, look, there’s all sorts of spinoff technologies and that justifies it.” And then, of course, there’s just the basic human drive to explore. Do you ever read on the level of popular support in China?

Leroy: Sure. I think, China, like the Russians, have been very, very proud of their space program. One thing for sure is that state-controlled media, in both countries, always make a big deal out of space missions and their astronauts, and their other achievements in space. And they’re right to be proud of them, of course. But the people, I think, of course, living in those kinds of systems is very different than living in the Western system. And so, I think the people are going to be, to a degree, programmed more, what they’re supposed to be proud of and cheer for, and less concerned about protesting that, hey, some of this money should be spent somewhere else. Now, having said that, in the U.S., we spend the most on space exploration, both as a percentage of our GDP and in pure dollars, but still, it’s just a drop in the bucket.

NASA’s budget for many, many decades was less than 1% of the annual budget of the United States. And only recently, has it gotten a little bit bigger, not enough really to do these moon programs that we’re supposed to be doing. That’s a whole nother topic, but it looks like we are on the verge of perhaps having the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, the new rocket with an Orion spacecraft on top, but it’s been a long time coming and it’s cost a lot more than it was supposed to, and we’re still a long ways from sending humans back to the moon. So, China, is spending less money, but they are able to get more done, partly because of the… They have a flatter management structure. There’s less bureaucracy in a way. In a way, there’s less bureaucracy than in our system.

And so, they’re able to kind of do more with less. And the Russians too, they’ve been able to do more with less money as well. But again, in space, if we’re going to compare China and Russia, China is clearly on the ascendancy, whereas Russia is clearly on the decline. U.S., we’re… I would grade us as treading water a little bit, maybe gaining a little bit, but the excitement here in the U.S., I think, is SpaceX and hopefully Blue Origin too. Blue has been working hard, but they’re so secretive. It’s difficult to know exactly what they’re up to or how close they are to certain launches. They have been operating their new Shepherd spacecraft. It’s a suborbital spacecraft, so far cry from sending satellites into orbit. But I think that’s where the future excitement is, really, is companies like SpaceX.

Jeremy: In the private sector.

Leroy: Yeah.

Jeremy: How much of a factor, do you think, in U.S. space activity is China as a rival and competitor? Is some of the driver, especially from NASA, from the government, is it coming because it sees a need to make sure the U.S. stays ahead of China?

Leroy: When China launched Yang Liwei in 2003, there was great hope from a lot of parts of NASA that this was going to spark a new space race, and we would see increased funding and emphasis on getting back to the moon, and hopefully to Mars. But none of that unfolded the… It was a very different situation, of course, with the Soviet Union back in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, so that never really happened. China, of course, they want to, just like any country, they want to show how their technical capabilities are so great. They’re able to send astronauts now aboard a Space Station. They’ve been able to send probes to the moon and Mars. They are preparing to send astronauts to the surface of the moon sometime in the 2030s according to plan.

And so, I think they remain very much focused on that to show the world of their technical prowess. NASA, the U.S., frankly, we’ve gotten used to being in the lead. We’ve been in the lead for so long that I think… And, of course, the International Space Station is just a shining jewel of international cooperation, and wouldn’t be there without the United States as the lead partner. As the lead partner, we paid for the vast majority of the ISS, including the Russian modules. We paid for those to be created. So, we have been able to stay in the lead, but if we’re not careful, if we don’t make plans, then in 2030, when the space station is deorbited, and depending on where the moon program is, we may not have that much to do anymore.

Jeremy: You mentioned bureaucracy. Aside from bureaucracy, are there other obstacles in the U.S. that are keeping our own space program back?

Leroy: The other piece, its yeah, bureaucracy, I think, it’s just kind of natural that, as organizations grow and as they get older, and then there’s more fad and more bureaucracy, perhaps some more siloing and infighting. So, that’s just how most organizations end up. And it’s really hard to kind of reverse that. But part of the other problem is the way that we do business here, like NASA contracting with the big aerospace companies, that’s how we’ve always done it. And during the space race, during the race to the moon, everybody was pulling forward, pushing forward in the same direction. It was almost like a wartime effort that we’ve gotta beat the Soviets to the moon.

But, of course, what happened is these companies figured out that once we got to the moon and accomplished the mission, then their contracts were wound down and they had to go look for a new business, right? And so, it becomes a little bit of a conflict of interest. If you are too successful too quickly, you’re just going to lose your contract. So, what can we do to kind of keep things going? I don’t think there’s ever overt discussions like that, but that creeps into the culture and the mindset of, well, if we’re too successful, we’re going to work ourselves out of a job. Just one example of that I’ll give is on this committee I was on in 2008, 2009, we suggested, hey, perhaps, the program’s not working, the new program to go explore moon and Mars, or the asteroid in Mars. And so maybe what we ought to do is scale down the rocket, such that we’re using a lot of things that we’re doing already on Space Shuttle, and Space Shuttle is about to be retired.

We could use the same solid rocket booster as the advanced version that’s being developed. We could use the same diameter external tank for the core stage. And so, we can use the same tooling. We can use the space shuttle, main engines instead of developing new ones. And we thought, well, maybe we can get some time and money off of all of this to get there. But, of course, that was 2008, 2009, and here we are in 2022, getting ready to launch that first rocket. And it’s taken all this time and all this money, frankly, to get here. As an example, when NASA was created in 1958, barely, not even quite 11 years later, 1969, I mean, back in 1958, we didn’t have astronauts. We really didn’t have any rockets to speak of. We had no idea how we would get to the moon or into orbits.

I mean, we hadn’t really been very successful at it. But then, in less than 11 years, we put humans on the moon. Contrast that with the current program that NASA’s been running, the original one that morphed into the current one, started back in ’04, ’05. The redesign version was around ’09. And so, here we are ‘09 to ’22, and that’s a lot more than 11 years. And we’re about to launch, maybe, this rocket for the first time here in the next month or so, or maybe on the 29th of this month.

Kaiser: Yeah. The U.S. these days seems to do everything in terms of competition with China. I mean, whether it’s just technology production or infrastructure renewal, it’s always about competing with China. So, why not a new space race? I mean, wouldn’t that be kind of a good thing? I mean, it really lit a fire to us, as you said, last time. I mean, amazing results. It’s funny because I’m thinking like it’s in the zeitgeist right now. I don’t know if you’ve seen this new show on Apple TV called For the Sake of Mankind. Have you seen this show?

Leroy: Oh, I’ve heard of it. I haven’t seen it.

Kaiser: I just started watching it. It’s really interesting. So, the premise is that the Russians get to the moon first. I mean, it all opens this big, funny Ts, where everyone thinks that you’re about to watch Neil Armstrong touchdown, and then the cosmonaut, who lands on the moon, starts speaking in Russian and talking about the, the great future of communism, Marxism-Leninism, and the premise is that really sparks fire. I have a feeling that this is sort of, subliminally, about China, about Chinese competition. Anyway, what do you think of the idea of sparking a new space race with China? Is that a good thing or bad thing?

Leroy: Well, unfortunately, I think the attitude on the U.S. side is, well, sure China’s doing all this stuff, but these are all things we’d done years ago.

Kaiser: Yeah, true.

Leroy: We landed on the moon years ago, we created a space station years ago, and their little puny space station is nothing compared to the ISS. And while all that might be true, they are steadily growing in their capabilities. And like I said, their smaller space station is probably more efficient to operate than the ISS. So, it might be better to have one, or fleet perhaps, of smaller stations than a big, huge ISS. In fact, NASA has been looking to the commercial companies now and putting out requests for information and proposal to, okay, what are your thoughts on building commercial space stations and contracts for building commercial space stations? Which would be smaller, of course, than ISS.

And so, maybe we will move to that model if NASA is able to get some of those efforts going before the end of ISS. But that’s a big if, that’s a big question mark, whether that’s going to work out or whether the funding is going to be there to continue. Unfortunately, I think, on the side of the U.S., there’s a lack of urgency. We still feel like the political leaders and probably the public is… They’re kind of in that mode of, well, China’s, yeah, they’re doing these things, but they’re all stuff we’ve done before, and we’ll always be in the lead. And that’s not necessarily true.

Kaiser: Years ago, I mean, I would hope that the attitude would’ve changed a little bit because of China’s recent successes, but here, let me read you a little passage from a Wired article that was published probably in like 2016 or ’17. They said…

Leroy: Sure.

Kaiser: “Like everything China does, people consistently underestimate the nation’s space program, common snubs include,” and this is just like what you just said, “it’s miles behind the curve, the gear is all Russian knock-off. Their launch schedules are hopelessly slapdash. Yeah, those have all been true at one point, but not in honest assessment of the program as it currently stands. Do you agree with this writer? How do you rate the progress that they make do, and are we underestimating it?

Leroy: Oh, I agree. I completely agree. And I think we are estimating it because sure, in the beginning, they basically had… There were teams of Russian specialists coming through China, even when I was training there, I would see these teams of Chinese specialists come through Star City in Russia. And in fact, I’d go and try to talk to them, and their handlers would shoo them, me away or corral them and not let them say much to me. But it was interesting. So, yeah, a lot of their initial technology was based on Russian technology that they either purchased, most of it purchased. But there are space suits, for example, they are modified versions of the Russian space suit, but on the very first spacewalk that the Chinese conducted, the space suit that went out was Chinese.

But then the second astronaut stayed in the airlock wearing a Russian suit plugged into the same panel. In other words, the two systems were compatible, right? So, they very much were using Russian technology for sure. But they are advancing beyond that now. Their spacecraft initially was based on the Russian Soyuz design, a bigger version of it, but their rockets were not. Their rockets are different. They were fueled by different propellants. They have gone off in different directions now. They’re using cryogenic propellants, whereas the Russians are not really for their core stages. And so, the Chinese are, of course, building their own stuff now, and I would expect them to continue doing so in the future.

Jeremy: What is the state of cooperation with Russia at the moment? Is there any meaningful cooperation between the two countries?

Leroy: Between China and Russia, you mean?

Jeremy: Yeah.

Leroy: Yeah. So, they’re obviously very friendly right now. But in terms of cooperation, certainly back in the early 2000s, in that timeframe, there’s a lot of collaboration, a lot of work going on, Russian selling a lot of their technology and knowhow to China to help them jumpstart their efforts. Currently, I don’t think there’s nearly as much there. In fact, I’m not aware of really any big cooperation, any programs together between Russia and China. And so, when Russia was threatening to pull out of the ISS, the one place people thought, well, some lay people thought were, well, the Russians are just gonna go work with China on their station. But frankly, I don’t think that’s going to happen because China, at this point, they’re certainly, it’s their stations, their program. They’re certainly not gonna accept Russia as an equal partner. And so, Russia would have to be a junior partner, and I don’t think Russians would be willing to be put in that position.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, a few years ago we heard a lot about China’s attempts to weaponize space, right? With satellite killers and that sort of thing. In fact…

Leroy: Sure.

Kaiser: I think it was 2007, China did blow up on satellites. Was there something to that allegation of weaponization, and what’s the situation at present?

Leroy:Sure. Well, in 2007, China did conduct that anti-satellite test, blowing up one of their old weather satellites, and scattering, frankly, a lot of debris in low earth orbit. And that was roundly condemned around the world, and as it should have been, but China was demonstrating that they had that capability. And in fact, it was, I think, it was a direct response to what the United States put out about half a year prior in our… I forget the report, but it was basically saying that we, the United States, reserve the right to deny access to space to anyone that we feel is a threat. And clearly, they had China in mind in writing those words. So, China was basically showing that, well, we have that capability as well. We can deny access to space to you, too, if we want to.

Yeah. So, all countries, United States, Russia, we have anti-satellite weapons. We have not done as kind of a visible test as China did, but we have those capabilities, and a lot of them are classified. I don’t know about them, but I’m sure we have them. The Russians have certainly shown capabilities to do things like that and disrupt our satellites and other country satellites if they want to. So, China basically is saying, hey, we also have these weapons and we’re going to show very clearly that we have them and that they work. So, yes, they are definitely working very hard on military space, but to be fair, so Russia, and then the United States have also been working hard in those areas for many years longer.

Kaiser: Yeah. It feels sort of pointless at this point to even say, “Oh, well, I hope that things change and that space cooperation can continue as it once did.” But I still sincerely do hope so. I mean, it just seems…

Jeremy: Kumbaya, huh, Kaiser?

Kaiser: Yeah. Kumbaya. Absolutely.

Leroy: Yeah. No, it’d be great. But human nature is, being what it is, we cooperate together when it makes sense, but then there’s been this inward turn of nationalism on both Russia and China, and to a degree, in the United States, but I think more so in those countries. And they are less interested in cooperating with us now than they were, perhaps 10ish, five, 10 years ago.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. What a pity. What an absolute pity.

Leroy: Yeah, real shame.

Kaiser: Well, on that bummer note though I do want to thank you for taking so much time to talk to us about your fascinating life and for sharing your perspectives on the American and Chinese space programs. Let’s go on now to recommendations. But first, a quick reminder, that we are changing our name, on September 1st, to The China Project. But one thing that isn’t changing is the fact that Sinica and the rest of the shows in our podcast network will still be powered by The China Project. And the best thing that you can do to support our podcasts is to subscribe to our China Access newsletter. Isn’t that right, Jeremy?

Jeremy: That’s right, Kaiser. And you don’t only get access to our newsletter, you get access to all of our content behind our paywall, which if you haven’t been to our website lately is a growing feast of everything from very intensive daily business updates based on Chinese media and government sources, a growing range of cultural reporting, feature stories, and a lot more.

Kaiser: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, let’s move on to recommendations. Jeremy, why don’t you kick us off as is our old tradition.

Jeremy: Okay. I’ve got something quite grim, but interesting. It’s called Nuremberg Diary by a guy named G. M. Gilbert. And he was the prison psychologist during the Nuremberg trials.

Kaiser: Oh wow.

Jeremy: It’s told in quite a, not a lighthearted, but sort of anecdotal way of his experiences listening to these Nazis, senior Nazis talk about themselves. And it’s really, really fascinating. I was led to it by a quote that I thought was apocryphal from Goering about how easy it is to con the common people into making war. It doesn’t matter if you’re an autocracy or democracy. That’s one of the interesting parts of this book is an insight into Goering and these other senior Nazis’ way of thinking. Anyway, there we go. Not a light read really, but it’s actually much easier to read than it might sound.

Kaiser: Yeah. Wow. Fascinating. Yeah, Goering is absolutely right. It does appear to be very easy to con the common people into war. I mean, we’re seeing this happen sort of on both sides right now. Ugh, it’s miserable. Anyway, Leroy, what do you have for us?

Leroy: I got to see a film recently that I hadn’t heard of. It came out in 2021 and it’s called Old Henry. And it’s what’s called a micro-Western. I didn’t know, such a thing existed. I’m not usually a big Western guy. I mean, I watch Westerns, but this friend said, “Hey, oh, wait, you’ve gotta see this movie.” And so, we put it on and I just absolutely loved it. Without giving away the story, if you haven’t seen it, it’s around the turn of the century, of the last century. It’s around 1906 in Oklahoma. There’s a farmer, and he and his teenage son worked the farm. The mother, the wife, mother has passed away some 10 years earlier, and they show a picture of her grave on the farm.

And the farmer and his son, they discover this riderless horse comes up, and they find this man who’s been shot, he’s barely alive, and a whole bunch of money. So, now they’re in this kind of a strange situation. They bring the man back to the farm and they start trying to nurse him back to health. And then there are a number of crises that happen, as you can imagine, as the story goes on, that I won’t give away. But it’s very much a story about the relationship between the father and his son. And his son being a teenager is a bit rebellious. He finds life on the farm boring and awful. And why are we still here? Why are you still here? And I’m going to get out of here as soon as I can. But then it’s got these touching moments during these crises between the father and the son.

And I guess it kind of resonated to me a little bit because I have teenagers, I have a daughter and a son, twins, who are bad age, 15 and a half or so. And so, it was a very interesting and touching movie in some ways.

Kaiser: I have a 16-year-old boy, so I’m sure I’m going to watch this as soon as I get home today.

Leroy: Yeah, check it out. It’s quite good.

Kaiser: It’s on one of the streaming services?

Leroy: It is. It’s, at least, I think we saw it on Xfinity, but I’m sure it’s on the other ones as well, some of the other

Kaiser: Okay. Fantastic. Thank you. That sounds like a really good recommendation.

Leroy: Sure.

Kaiser: I actually have two for this week. The first is the new biography of Putin, just called Putin by Philip Short, which I’m only about a third of the way through right now, but it’s certainly some very gripping reading. Short was a longtime BBC correspondent. And he actually earlier, I think it was in 2016, he published a biography of Mao as well, which I have not read, but I have to say I’ve heard mixed things about that biography, but this Putin bio is great. It sets the tone pretty early on. Right away, I mean, the intro just takes us into that whole story about Putin’s succession to Yeltsin, which I’ve heard many, many times, and which I thought had been sort of closed. It was like settled despite it being so crazily conspiratorial and far-fetched, this idea that Putin had staged these bombings in Russian cities, killing Russian citizens, and blaming it on Chechen rebels as part of this false flag operation. But his take is that no, that wasn’t, in fact, what happened, that it actually was Chechen bombings. This is, by no means, an apology for Putin so far. I mean, it paints him as a pretty unappealing character in many, many, many ways, but it’s great. The research so far is super impressive. And Short writes extraordinarily well. So, I highly recommend it so far. And I’ll report back when I’ve finished it and tell you how I feel about it.

My second recommendation for this week is an article, it’s actually a pre-article, kind of a preview of a forthcoming paper about the Cyberspace Administration of China, CAC, written by Jamie Horsley, who’s a great scholar. It looks at this strange, hybrid, undefined, but undeniably powerful agency in the Chinese Communist Party. It actually has sort of one foot in the administrative state and then another squarely in the party itself. It’s really eye-opening and it’s really important for anyone who wants to understand governance and sees China today to understand this. Jeremy and I have both had dealings with the Cyberspace Administration of China, so we know how important they can be. Anyway, I reached out to Jamie-

Jeremy: But they weren’t actually. What I think is so interesting about the article, I mean, the cyberspace, it wasn’t as important as it is now. It’s now this extremely powerful organization…

Kaiser: It’s become super powerful.

Jeremy: Which it wasn’t, its predecessors weren’t. Anyway, fascinating article I agree.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, I’ve actually reached out to Jamie and I just wrote to her just before we started recording just now. Let’s see about getting around Sinica to discuss, so fingers crossed. Anyway, thank you so much, Leroy, what a fascinating conversation.

Leroy: Yeah, pleasure.

Kaiser: What a great time talking to you. And we look forward to having you back on the show, because there’s just lots more to talk about, so I hope you’re amenable to that.

Leroy: All right. Thank you, guys. It’s been a pleasure.

Kaiser: Yeah. And Jeremy, as always, what a pleasure.

Jeremy: Thank you, Leroy. Thanks Kaiser.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at sinica@supchina.com, or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.