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China's space program comes of age: U.S. expert

By Wang Hongbin, Zhang Yongxing and Zhao Xiaoqing (Xinhua)

09:53, June 16, 2013

HOUSTON, June 15 (Xinhua) -- The successful launch of the Shenzhou-10 spacecraft marks China's coming of age as a strong player in mankind's endeavor to explore the unknown in the universe, said a U.S. scientist.

Carolyn T. Sumners, vice president of Astronomy and Physical Sciences at Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, told Xinhua that she was "very impressed" by China's space program, particularly the newly launched Shenzhou-10.

"The mission is so long," Sumners said. The Shenzhou-10, China's fifth manned spaceflight, will stay in orbit for 15 days, the longest mission in the country's history. The craft completed an automated docking with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space module on Thursday and will conduct a manual docking later.

"It took the United States many docking attempts to understand docking. You have to make decisions about can humans do it better or can the machine do it better? I think it is very important to go both ways, just like what China has done," she commented.

China is the third country after the United States and Russia to acquire the technologies and skills necessary for space rendezvous and docking procedures and to supply manpower and materials for an orbiting module via different docking methods.

During their 12-day stay in the Tiangong-1 space lab, the three "taikonauts" will carry out physical, technological and scientific experiments on board. The female crew member, Wang Yaping, will give a lecture of physics to students back on Earth.

Sumners said as an educator she deeply understands the importance of engaging the public, especially the kids, in learning more about the space. "Space is a big dream. It can inspire kids. They may be inspired to be astronauts, scientists or engineers in the future."

The Shenzhou-10 is the first application-orientated flight under China's space program since the country introduced its manned space program in 1992.

Sumners said the transition from experimental to functional flight means China now has a reliable transportation vehicle to get people and supply to the space, a crucial step to build a space station.

China is scheduled to set up a permanent space station by 2020. Sumners said as a scientist she is excited to see how China's space station will be and how China is going to address all the difficulties Americans and Russians faced when they built space stations.

"Making a space station has real challenges, like how do you power it? You can have a big solar ray like the International Space Station or you can power each module with its own solar power like the Russian modules. It will be interesting to see how China approaches that," she said.

"Other challenges are probably more related to humans than to technology because what we are finding is that people have a very hard time coming back home. They often have weak muscles and health deterioration. Another thing is radiation. Astronauts in orbit are still under the basic radiation shield of the Earth, but it's much higher there. What if a solar flare happens?"

In coping with these problems, Sumners believes that China will contribute more solutions and answers to other countries.

Speaking about the importance of international cooperation in space exploration, she said: "The United States and Russia recognized that they can do more together than separately, so the International Space Station is a shared commitment of the two countries. I believe cooperations like what other countries have done in the International Space Station will come to China as well, because China is a player as strong as anyone else in making our future in space a reality."

Sumners said the space can teach us a lesson that all countries should work together instead of being at odds. "Once you go to the space and look down on the Earth, you realize the planet doesn't have borders. That message plays better everywhere. More and more people will realize if we want to have a future in space, we'll probably have it as one world with all nations working together."

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