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China launches a new 3-person crew for its orbiting space station

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This happened in China today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A rocket blasted into orbit with three astronauts on board. They're headed to China's new space station to relieve a crew that's been there for six months. Among the three is the first civilian to be sent into orbit by China. The country's space program is run by the military, so, for them, this is another milestone.

FADEL: To discuss more, we have NPR's John Ruwitch with us from Shanghai. Hi there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So this civilian - who is he, and why is it so important that he's going up to space?

RUWITCH: Yeah. It's a bespectacled professor named Gui Haichao, who's 36 years old. He teaches at Beihang University in Beijing, which is China's premier aeronautics and astronautics university. He actually got his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. there as well in aerospace engineering. And then he went on to do postdoc work in Canada. He's on this mission as a payload specialist, so he's not navigating or flying, but he's basically going to be conducting science experiments. I called Quentin Parker, who's a space scientist at the University of Hong Kong, to ask how significant this is. He says it's important because it sort of opens a new chapter for China's ambitious space program.

QUENTIN PARKER: If you got, you know, an orbital space station like the Chinese now have, which is basically a very large science laboratory, then the kind of equipment and payloads they have up there are very sophisticated technological and scientific equipment, sometimes quite delicate. It needs to be operated and understood and managed by people who know what they're doing. And these are the - you know, these are the scientists.

RUWITCH: These are the scientists. You got to remember, up until today, all of China's astronauts came from the military.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned this program is ambitious. What exactly is China planning?

RUWITCH: Well, look, I mean, their first manned space mission was in 2003, right? Twenty years later, they now have an operational space station. They've gone from, basically, one crewed mission every two or three years to now they're doing one every six months to change crew at the space station. They've picked up the pace. They've sent a rover to Mars. They've sent various crafts to the moon, brought back moon rocks. And they just announced plans to put a Chinese person onto the surface of the moon by 2030. By the way, the U.S. is also trying to do some of this same stuff, including getting Americans back to the moon.

FADEL: OK. So how does all this fit in with the tension and competition between the U.S. and China? Is this a new space race?

RUWITCH: Right. It's a little more complicated. I asked Dean Cheng about this. He's a senior adviser with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

DEAN CHENG: The original space race was, at the end of the day, only a little bit about a science and a whole lot about whose system was better, ours or the Soviets'. Fast forward to today - we are seeing aspects of that coming back. It's not quite space race 2.0, but, yes, in the background is a political competition.

RUWITCH: Yeah. So there's a political competition. You know, one thing that does make people nervous - not only is China's space program developing quickly, but it's very opaque. China issues white papers on space every few years. The last one was last January. It didn't say anything about the military side of the program. The white paper also did not mention putting people on the moon. And just this week they said they're going to do that within seven years. You know, another example - this guy, Gui Haichao, the first civilian to go into space with China's space program - they didn't announce that that was happening or that it was going to be him until yesterday.

FADEL: NPR's John Ruwitch in Shanghai on the not-quite space race 2.0. Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.