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Make China our new partner in space

By Leroy Chiao, Special to CNN
  • Russian launch last month of supply freighter bound for the space station failed
  • Leroy Chiao says since shuttle program ended, U.S. has few options for space travel
  • He says if astronauts had to leave station unoccupied, results could be disastrous
  • Chiao suggests bringing China into International Space Station program

Editor's note: Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990 to 2005 and flew four missions into space, including flights aboard the space shuttles Columbia, Endeavour and Discovery.

(CNN) -- On August 24, the launch of Progress 44P -- an unmanned Russian space freighter -- failed after the third stage of the Soyuz rocket carrying it suffered an as-yet-unknown problem. Pieces of the failed launch were recovered some 40 miles north of the Chinese-Siberian border in a wooded area.

During this time of round-the-clock coverage of the events in Libya, Hurricane Irene, and the roller-coaster stock market, this news got only short mention in the media. But it is a very big deal. Not because of the loss of the supplies that were headed to the International Space Station; NASA was quick to point out that supplies have been stocked aboard the ISS, so no immediate changes in operations are required.

The bigger deal is that this is the same rocket that launches Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which carry crew to and from ISS. The rocket will be grounded until the root cause of the failure is determined and a fix is put into place. It is unknown how long this process will take.

Russia postpones new manned space station mission

What is certain is that nobody can fly to the ISS with crew right now. This is not an immediate problem. Crew members aboard are not in any danger; they have their Soyuz spacecraft docked to the space station and can return to Earth if necessary. And this would only happen if the Soyuz rockets are not returned to flight before critical supplies of oxygen, water and food run low.

But if the space station had to be left without a crew aboard, this could be a serious problem. There are a number of events that cause the station to lose "attitude control." Why is this important? When attitude -- or position -- control is lost on a structure like the space station, it begins to tumble. When there is a crew onboard during these events, they run the procedures to re-establish control. This is not such a big deal.

Without a crew, however, the antennae would quickly lose lock with Mission Control, and the ISS computers would not receive commands from the flight controllers. The solar arrays would no longer be correctly pointed at the sun, and the storage batteries would run down. The space station would slowly die.

It would not be possible to safely attempt a docking with a tumbling station, so a new crew would not be able to get aboard to rectify things. The station would slowly lose altitude and re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner. We and our international partners would lose the multi-billion dollar facility. Large pieces would survive the re-entry and could cause significant damage upon impact with the Earth.

America knowingly signed on for the spaceflight "gap," which opened after space shuttles flew their final missions this year. During the gap, the United States has no independent way to get astronauts into low earth orbit until it develops new capabilities, either through government or commercial spaceflight development projects. In either case, independent analyses have shown that we should not realistically expect a new spacecraft with Initial Operational Capability for another five years at best.

What can we do? Are there any other options? Yes: Bring China into the International Space Station program. China is the only other entity besides the U.S. and Russia with a human spaceflight capability. In fact China is, at the moment, the only entity that can launch astronauts into low earth orbit.

Here's how it might work. NASA would follow the model used to begin work with the Russians in the early 1990s. Technical exchanges of specialists and astronauts would pave the way for developing plans, processes and procedures to allow modification of the Shenzhou spacecraft to rendezvous and dock with the ISS, with joint Chinese, U.S. and Russian crews. The United States would lead these efforts.

There are those who argue against any space cooperation with China on grounds that the Chinese would obtain technological secrets and capabilities from the U.S. The fact is, nothing of military value would be transferred in either direction, just as such knowledge has not been transferred to or from Russia as a result of the positive and successful collaboration in our civil space programs. China would only learn from us about how to operate with a civil space station.

One of the major findings of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, appointed by the White House, was that the international framework of cooperation for the ISS was one of the major successes of the program. The report went on to state that this framework should be expanded and used in future programs, to include new members with emerging spaceflight programs.

The time is now. The United States should endeavor to recover the lead position in human space exploration with the cooperation of other nations. Xenophobia and isolationism are outdated concepts. Let's seize this opportunity and emerge again as a proud nation in space.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leroy Chiao.