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India launched a spacecraft bound for orbit around Mars today. The unmanned craft is the latest milestone in a space race among Asian nations. China is still seen as the leader in that race. NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently visited China's premier space science research center and he found that one thing the Chinese are having problems with is cooperation with the United States.
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STEVE NESBITT: One minute 15 seconds. Velocity, 2,900 feet per second. Altitude, nine nautical miles.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: When the space shuttle Challenger exploded just after takeoff in 1986, a young Chinese engineer who built microwave antennas was watching. His name is Wu Ji. He recalls the shock of seeing that disaster.
WU JI: (Through Translator) To a young man who was in love with space flight and exploration, it was extremely painful to see this kind of failure. I felt that exploring space was a massive challenge for which people must sacrifice and a common cause for mankind.
KUHN: Wu is now director of China's National Space Science Center. The center helped to design China's first satellite in 1970. It beamed back the tune "The East is Red," singing the praises of Chairman Mao. Since then, the center has played a key role in manned space flight and unmanned missions to explore the moon and Mars.
At the space center, I watch data on weather and space stream into a control center from terrestrial monitoring stations. I meet the many young scientists who run the center's laboratories. One of them, Dong Xiaolong, shows me around the remote sensing lab.
DONG XIAOLONG: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Mr. Dong is now showing us a set of microwave antennas, which were the first to ever measure the thickness of the soil on the moon. Two years ago, China put its first Mars probe on a Russian rocket. But the rocket failed and China's probe was lost. India's probe is now en route to the Red Planet, and NASA plans to launch its Mars orbiter this month.
Director Wu Ji says that it's likely to be five to seven years before a Chinese craft makes it to Mars. China will then pick up where the U.S. and India left off.
JI: (Through Translator) If China launches its own Mars probe, we will certainly choose new scientific goals based on what others have done before.
KUHN: Joan Johnson-Freese is an expert on China's space programs at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. She notes that China has manned space flight and lunar exploration programs that India does not. But today's Mars probe launch at least gives India a leg up in one area.
JOAN JOHNSON-FREESE: If India is able to beat China to Mars, that will be a huge sense of national pride. So I think the Space Science Center, there is some pressure on them to push forward with this Mars project.
KUHN: Director Wu Ji says China will push forward and he welcomes cooperation with any country. But he's frustrated that two years ago, Congress banned NASA from using federal funds to cooperate with China. Opponents of U.S.-China cooperation argue that China's military helps run its space programs, and China really has nothing to teach America about space science.
Joan Johnson-Freese points out that even during the Cold War, the U.S. worked with the Soviet Union on some space programs. And if we don't cooperate with China, others will.
JOHNSON-FREESE: I think this is a counterproductive policy. You know, if we consider China our competitor, well, there's the expression keep your enemies close. So you would want to keep them close to know what they're doing. If we don't consider them our enemy or competitor, why aren't we working with them?
KUHN: NASA recently banned Chinese scientists from a meeting on planets outside our solar system but they changed their minds after U.S. scientists threatened to boycott the conference. Wu says he's dismayed at the uncooperative attitude and lack of openness in the U.S.
JI: (Through Translator) As I observe it from the outside, I feel that America is gradually contracting and closing itself off. It's a very strange thing.
KUHN: Wu says he prefers to cooperate with other countries. But if not, China undoubtedly has the ability to go it alone, even if it takes a bit longer.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.