Astronaut Leroy Chiao is a veteran of four space missions, recently acting as Commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station. He has logged over 229 days in space - over 36 hours of which were spent in Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks). He served as a member of the White House appointed Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee.
Dr. Chiao left NASA in 2005 and is involved in entrepreneurial business ventures and works in the US, China, Japan and Russia. He is a director of Excalibur Almaz, a private manned spaceflight company. In addition, he is a director of InNexus, a biotechnology/pharmaceutical development company. Active as a consultant and public speaker, he also serves as the Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute User Panel, which is attached to the Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Chiao is a director of Challenger Center and of the Committee of 100. He is also an advisor and spokesman for the Heinlein Prize Trust.
Question: What was it like when former Soviet cosmonauts began training with NASA?
Leroy Chiao: Sure, you're right, in the early days, and in the Apollo days, it was a space race. We were battling against the Soviet Union in space trying to see who could get up into space and who could get to the Moon first. Ultimately the Apollo missions we accomplished that first.
In the '90's then, I came into NASA in 1990, so it was perfect timing and the Berlin wall was falling, or had just fallen, and pretty soon, in '92 or '93, we started working with the Russians. Then this was a weird thing. We had two Cosmonauts come over, two folks that I actually got to know pretty well later on, but at the time, we were kind of looking at them in the Astronaut office as curiosities. This was the first time we had these ex-Soviet Cosmonauts in Houston, they were going to train with us, and one of them was going to fly on the space shuttle. We were going to send a couple of Americans over to fly on Soyuz and go fly to the Mir Space Station, and it was a whole new thing.
A lot of us, including me, viewed it with some skepticism, because I grew up during the Cold War, so to me, I had been hit with all this propaganda all along that their stuff wasn't that good, it wasn't that safe and we were so much better. And of course, what I found out later was that their space stuff was very good and good enough that I was certainly comfortable flying on their equipment. So, it was kind of a revelation of sorts as the years went by and I think it underscores the importance right now of international cooperation.
I just completed an assignment as a member of a ten-member committee called, The Augustine Committee, that the White House Commissioned to study what NASA is doing and then to put forward options to the new administration for going forward. In fact, the NASA Administrators are meeting today with President Obama to discuss those matters. So, one of the conclusions that we came up with, one of the findings was the importance of the international relationships that has come out of the international space station and how we should enhance that kind of thing and actually more forward and expand that framework to move forward into what we call exploration and going beyond lower Earth orbit.
Question: What are relations like now between NASA and other country’’ space programs?
Leroy Chiao: You bet, sure. You know as far as Russia goes, they've been our partner for a long time now, since the early '90's. So you know, what's that, that's more than 15 years. And there have been times where things were a little tense, a little testy, but by and large, the partnership has been very successful. To give you two examples of that, when the Columbia accident occurred, the Russians supported us with their spacecraft faring our astronauts, including me, to the space station and also supplies.
Previous to that, when they were having troubles, the Space Shuttle supported the Space Station Mir bringing up much needed supplies and replacements, critical spares, really. That they were able to keep their space station going for much longer than they would have without us. So, I think that shows, just quickly in two examples, the value of international cooperation.
I think that cooperating in something as visible as space exploration and space flight can only improve relations between the two countries because what happens is, you're working on a common project in a very visible light and so, you're motivated to not have conflicts with each other in other areas. And bringing up China is a good example. In the early '90's, China got serious about wanting to launch astronauts into space and they were actually quite successful in launching many communication satellites. And in the mid-'90's, there was something called the ITAR laws that the U.S. passed and basically shut down western countries, most western countries from launching on Chinese launchers. But they went ahead and developed their incapability, and in 2003, they launched their first astronaut into space.
In 2006, I became the fist American to be allowed to go visit their astronaut center in China in Beijing, and that was really an interesting trip and I got to meet the first few astronauts that they launched into space and I got to know the Director pretty well.
But I think that it makes sense for the U.S. to work with China in the future and I hope to see, if the political atmosphere between the United States and China allow for us to do more cooperation together, especially in the area of human space flight. I think in the same way that it's help improve the relations between the U.S. and Russia; it would help to improve the relations between the U.S. and China.
One example I'll give is, two years ago, China tested a anti-satellite weapon that actually caused quite a bit of controversy and one of the controversies is that by blowing up a satellite, you are creating more space debris which is a hazard to satellites and spacecraft in lower Earth orbit and if they had been a partner, you'd have to do an experiment, and if they had been a partner in the international space station, would they have really done that test? Again, they would have really thought twice, I think, about creating that tension between the countries and also endangering a project, or potentially endangering a project that they were a part of.
Question: Did anyone ever question your patriotism as a second-generation Chinese American?
Leroy Chiao: Well, that never came up and what I was trying to do on that mission that was my first mission where I brought all those things. I brought a flag from China, I brought the stone sculpture from Hong Kong, and I brought a scroll from Taiwan. And what I wanted to do is, because as I was going up and I am this Chinese-American, I wanted to represent Chinese people from the major population centers around the world where there are a lot of Chinese people. And so, I picked Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. And so, I wanted to bring something from each of those places and so it really wasn't a political thing and I hope people saw it that way because I'm certainly not going to try to – you know, I'm an American. I was born her, I was raised in the U.S., and I'm an American first, but also very proud of my heritage.
Question: Does NASA currently have good relations with the Chinese?
Leroy Chiao: No. Right now, there is very little cooperation between the U.S. and China in space. In fact, it's limited to a couple of exchanges, not exchanges, but a couple of meetings that the Chinese have been invited to and that NASA has been invited to, so there really is no cooperation to speak of in human space flight. There have been no astronauts coming over and training with us and vice versa. The only contact has been in formal and probably mostly through me, as far as contacts with astronauts because once I left NASA, of course, I was no longer affiliated any more and I could go off and do these things. So, these are strictly, you know, when I went over the astronaut center in China, that was strictly as an individual; I wasn't representing NASA. And then a couple of years ago, I attended a big human space flight conference in Beijing and again, I was going as myself. And really, there weren't any NASA astronauts there, I was the only so-called American Astronaut there. We had astronauts from most of the other countries, certainly from Russia, from France, from Japan, several other countries, but it was a little bit odd because here we are at an international gathering of a lot of astronauts and I'm talking about somewhere upwards of 30 or so astronauts, and I'm the only American. And I wasn't even there in an official capacity.
Question: What does the U.S. space program risk by having poor relations with the Chinese?
Leroy Chiao: Well, you know, if you don't think too deeply into it, you could say, wow, well China, they're our potential enemy and why would we want to cooperate with them. They're going to steal our technology and all that. Well, the other way to look at it is, well because we didn't cooperate with them, we gave them motivation to develop their own capability. You know, they developed a very capable rocket system, very capable spacecraft. And if we don't cooperate with them in the future, they're going to develop more capable systems.
And as far as stealing our technology, working in the human space flight, there's nothing in the human space flight realm that is applicable to defense. You know, we're not going -- by working together and maybe sending one of their astronauts to the space station and one of our astronauts on their spacecraft, it's not going to make their missiles more accurate. They're not going to have access to our missile guidance technology and things like that.
So, once you think about it a bit more deeply, It makes sense to cooperate with countries like China. And even in the defense establishment these days, I've talked to individuals during my work on this Augustine Committee who tell me, well now the thinking in the defense arenas is exactly the same thing. They would like to see cooperation in civil space with countries like China because of what I mentioned earlier. If we're working together on a highly visible project, there is going to be much less, or there is going to be motivation for each country to not get into a conflict or any kind of tension in the military sense.
And so, they feel that by working together on civil projects, visible civil projects, they can help accomplish their goals in the defense arena.
Question: Which country is leading in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, right now, the Americans, I think, I feel the Americans are still the leaders in human space flight. But I have to say that I feel we have a danger here of kind of stagnating. We're kind of resting on our laurels and there's a danger going forward if we don't take bold steps to really support human space flight in this country that we could fall behind.
After the space shuttle is retired, probably in about a year and a-half, or so, the Americans will – we’re going to have a big gap, five to seven years, at least where we're not going to have the ability to send our own astronauts into space, we'll have to buy rides on the Russian Soyuz, and so that will be a pretty big step down for us. The only two countries at that time who will be able to launch people into space will be Russia and China. I've seen the Russian technology up close and I've had a chance to look at some of the Chinese technology. And I have to say, it's a very high level. The have good hardware and what China lacks is operational experience. That is, they haven't flown many missions. But as they gain more experience, as they fly more missions, they'll catch up quickly. They've made some impressive strides.
Russia, of course, has a lot of experience; they've been at this as long as we have technically, even a little bit longer. So, I think the U.S. does face the possibility of losing the lead in human space flight during this period of what we call the gap.
Question: Is American decline in space primarily an economic concern?
Leroy Chiao: I think in a big picture sense, it's more national prestige that we're risking. You know, we are proud of our space program, but as we were talking earlier, the average American doesn't think that much about it right now. So, it may seem like something we could just give up and not really worry about it, but I think it starts creeping into the national psyche. If American astronauts have to hitch rides with the Russians or other nations in the future. If we're not able to launch our own people and operate our own spacecraft anymore then, you know, space -- whether it should be or not, it's seen as like a harbinger of technology. If you can fly people into space, if you can operate into space, then you've got high technology and if you're the leader of that, then you're the leader in technology, or at least that's the way that people think, I believe.
So, if we lose that on a more or less permanent basis, or for a long period of time, my fear is that it will creep into the national psyche in all areas and we as a nation as a whole will kind of be diminished. You saw a little bit of that with Britain back in the early days of sailing ships. They were the sea power, the controlled the seas and they had colonies all over the world and then you can look at history and watch the way that their empire kind of crumbled. I certainly don't want that to happen to the United States.
Recorded on December 16, 2009