Friday, December 18, 2020







Blazing towards touchdown at a smoking seven miles a second, the Chang’e 5 returner capsule separated from the service craft high above the coast of South Africa, entered a fiery skip zone off the Arabian Peninsula, transited India and the Himalayan range before parachuting from an altitude of six miles above Inner Mongolia.


The capsule hit ground on an isolated, snowy plain in the early hours of December 17, Beijing Time, completing a 23-day journey to the moon and back. Soon a helicopter retrieval crew and off-road vehicles raced to inspect the still-warm craft.


A quick brown fox nimbly trotted past the scorched spacecraft shortly after it dropped out of the sky into a pile of snow. Both the four-legged predator and gumdrop-shaped Chang’e 5 return capsule glowed in the infrared range as detected by night-vision cameras. 


Soon, a bipedal recovery team surrounded the capsule, but it seems wholly fitting, though inadvertent, that a four-legged creature, perhaps a fox--or was it a wolf--should be the first emissary from the planet earth to greet the returned craft.


One of the first orders of business was to erect a large Chinese flag adjacent to the landing site. Workers dressed in insulated orange suits, covered up in the cold weather, could be seen scurrying around, ducking in and out of camera range, as spotlights cast long shadows on the snow-dusted terrain.


The first TV images of the landing site bore an uncannily unreal glow, not unlike computer graphics or one of those artfully-imagined staged lunar landings popular with conspiracy theorists. But it was very real, despite the stark, otherworldly aura, and a distinctly earth-like welcome was accorded to the craft, but it wasn’t from the official welcome party.


The novel iteration of “wolf diplomacy” brought a moment of spontaneous delight to an otherwise tightly-controlled media play. 


The emotional stakes in real-time coverage can be excruciatingly high,  to a nail-biting degree, as Elon Musk can readily attest.

On December 9, 2020, the latest Space X Starship SN8 rocket test wowed a huge TV audience with a flawless ascent and fancy cutting-edge flips before crashing to the ground in a nightmarish ball of flame that engulfed both rocket and landing pad.


Painful to watch, but was it a public relations failure?

“Mars, here we come!!” Musk tweeted in response. It was a paradoxical reaction from a corporate leader whose costly test craft had just failed spectacularly in a public way, but he had a point. Space exploration, difficult and dangerous as it is, would never get off the ground without bravado, willpower and a formidable, forward-looking optimism. Censorship won’t make the jitters go away. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and presumably data from the wreckage will be used to re-design things in a way that makes the Space X Starship safer. 


While China has come a long way in catching up to the US science-wise, a comparable degree of confidence and transparency when it comes to coverage of its space program is not yet apparent. 


Delivery of science news still lacks the transparency and accountability that come with true confidence. What’s more, the mouthpiece media, dedicated to coddling the egos of top leaders and the ruling party, is not given free rein to cover events as they happen, but instead must take the party line into account, even when it is at odds with the facts.


A glimpse of China’s unique blend of “great-power insecurity” and its penchant to over-politicize genuine accomplishments was on display in the CGTN’s English-language program “Moon Harvest” which provided “live” coverage of the Chang’e 5 landing. 


The coverage was mostly taped, though images began to beam more freely once the basic success of the operation was apparent. Two amiable news commentators at the CGTN news desk chatted incessantly, as is their job to do, but at least they were knowledgeable about the moon mission. But there were also political considerations to take into account.


Consider this brief on-air exchange about the fate of the coveted moon rocks:


“We also received congratulations letter from President Xi…very important remarks from the president, a clear indication that these samples have become presidential, we cannot move or give to anyone without consent from the president.” 


“Absolutely not!”


President Nixon famously glommed onto the Apollo 11 mission, dialing up the moon in “the most historic phone call ever made” and greeting the astronauts upon return to earth, but even in his eagerness to “own” the historic moment he did not claim ownership of the moon rocks. (Though Trump probably would if he could.)


The meta-message of CGTN on this matter suggests that success belongs to the penultimate leader, while failure, if not effectively covered up, should be disavowed or pinned on subordinates.


The treasure haul of moon rocks raises thorny questions. Will they be shared with American scientists, the world’s leading experts in lunar geology? 


Probably not.


Chinese scientists have understandably been frustrated by the reluctance of the US to share the fruits of its own space science. To add insult to injury, the Wolf Amendment, passed by the US congress in 2011, formalized a ban on sharing moon rocks and space science with China specifically.


Making no amends for bad policy, but taking note of China’s rapid ascendancy in space matters, Vice-President Pence called for the US to “seize the lunar strategic high ground.” This is empty, delusional talk, as the US is many years away from being able to get back to the moon after program cuts approved by President Obama. 


But China could yet take the high ground and share its samples and findings generously, within reason. 


The Wolf Amendment is narrow-minded and needn’t be imitated. True, the US has been stingy with its huge Apollo haul--over two thousand moon rocks weighing in at 383 kilograms in total--but it was more willing to share in the past than is currently the case. The UN got a piece, so did many allied missions and museums, and under President Carter, China did, too. A tiny bit of moon rock was presented to China by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski as the two nations went about establishing full-fledged diplomatic relations. 



A small gesture, perhaps, but it’s a tribute to the power of sharing that the gift did not go unnoticed. CGTN’s most recent Chang’e coverage included a trip to the Beijing Planetarium where a tiny piece of Apollo moon rock has been on display, quietly inspiring visitors for years. 




Tuesday, December 1, 2020


November 23, 2020 launch of China’s Chang'e-5 from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center in Hainan

(published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, December 1, 2020)



Abstract: With China’s Chang’e 5 rocket launch, which landed on the moon on December 1, the long US-Russian domination of space has a major challenger. The issues extend beyond national pride to a global leadership initiative in rocketry whose implications extend to military, economic and diverse scientific applications at a time of mounting US-China rivalry in all spheres.

Keywords: China, US, Russia, Space Program, Great Power Conflict


China’s Challenge to US-Russia Space Exploration Hegemony

China is taking aim at the moon, establishing itself as a space power to be reckoned with. While currently playing catch-up behind the space accomplishments of the US and Russia, it is rapidly gaining ground as a result of an ambitious Chinese space program coinciding with domestic squabbling in the US, budgetary shortfalls in Russia, and lack of focused political will on the part of both space pioneers. 

With the freshly-launched Chang’e 5 probe, locked into a moon orbit as of November 28, for the first time in forty years an attempt is being made to collect rocks on the moon and bring them back to earth for study.


Mission control center for Chang'e 5 as the "Goddess" zooms in on the moon (Xinhua)


The US Advance in Space and its Subsequent Decline

The heyday of moon exploration by the US and the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with a deadly serious space race that was effectively war by other means for the two reigning superpowers. With the epoch-setting launch of Sputnik, the USSR got off to a roaring start, putting the first man in space, the first woman in space and achieving a long catalogue of other firsts. Energized by the Kennedy challenge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, the US doubled down on investments in education and science, while the daunting technical requirements of the space program drove demand for silicon chips, miniaturization and other novel technologies. 

On July 20, 1969, the small step of one man was memorably deemed “a giant leap for all mankind,” but that noble sentiment did not stop Armstrong and Aldrin from planting an American flag on the moon, propped up artificially to make up for the utter absence of a breeze. 

But winning the race to the moon in 1969 proved as anti-climactic as “winning” the Cold War in 1989. Both successes fueled American exceptionalism and nationalistic hubris, and possessing the high ground did nothing to deter the US from engaging in cruel and gratuitous warfare, above all in defeat in Vietnam. The same kind of ballistics and chips that enabled space flight were retooled to power cruise missiles, smart bombs and drones. A smug and careless complacency set in, rooted in narcissistic self-esteem and a generalized disregard for all rivals.

The audacious derring-do of those early days is underscored by the paucity of computing power back then: the Apollo program sent men to the moon to hand-collect bags of rocks using computer systems and cameras less powerful than the average teenager’s smart phone of today. 

If the early programs lacked digital prowess, they were notable for pluck and excellent rocketry. The big rockets of the day, the Saturn and the Proton, developed with the help of former Nazi scientists on both sides of the Soviet-American divide, made the reach to the moon possible.

Computing power has grown by leaps and bounds since then, but US rocketry has declined to the point that NASA had no way to send or retrieve astronauts in space for a decade, dating from the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Until the advent of the Space X Crew Dragon earlier this year, US astronauts had to hitch a ride on Russia’s Soyuz craft to access the US-built space station.


Space X Crew Dragon Demo-2


The exploits of astronauts and cosmonauts offer nail-biting narratives and crowd-pleasing photo ops, but with today’s advanced computer technology and robotics, unmanned missions suffice for most scientific purposes. 


What scientific value space exploration?

During NASA’s slack years, a diverse series of unmanned spacecraft supervised by the US Jet Propulsion Lab conducted cutting-edge science, not only uncovering the unique attributes of various planets and satellites, but going a long way to help us understand related processes on earth. To gaze at other planets, is to ponder the past present and future of our own planet and the universe.

What caused Mars to lose its atmosphere and streams of liquid water? What was Venus like before a runaway greenhouse effect produced some of the hottest temperatures in the solar system? The Jovian moon Europa and Saturn’s Titan, the one containing an ice ocean, the other a thick atmosphere, seem to possess the necessary conditions for the genesis of biological life as we know it.

Which brings us back to the moon, that lonely desiccated, cratered satellite locked in orbit with the watery planet earth. The birth of the modern environmental movement was in part inspired by the Apollo astronaut’s view of earth from afar; how fragile, how delicate, how alone. 

The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, packed up his bag of rocks in 1972, and no one’s been back since. The Soviet Union’s Luna mission, a robotic craft designed to ferry a few ounces of moon rock back to the earth, last flew in 1976.

Going to the moon for a walkabout might seem old hat but there’s still much science to be done, geology in particular. Studying rocks in a volcanic basin on the moon is the ostensible purpose of the Chang’e-5 mission, though the fact that uranium is thought to be abundant there is enough to imbue China’s modest automated rock collection mission with an aura of clandestine intrigue at a time of US-China clash on numerous fronts.


Xinhua graphic of Chang’e 5 entering moon orbit


The Moon and Mars

But what the latest Chinese lunar probe is really about, though not explicitly stated, is Mars. If humankind is ever going to get to the Red Planet, competition for national prestige is likely to be a key driver. 

Deadly solar radiation, unmitigated by either atmospheric or magnetic deflection, means that Mars, science fiction visions notwithstanding, is more likely to remain a lighthouse, a lonely scientific outpost, than an “empty planet” ripe for colonization. In either case, the long Mars journey requires mastery of challenging modular maneuvers that start with blast-off from earth, descent to another heavenly body, ascent back into space and safe propulsion back to the home planet. 

China’s moon missions can be seen as a dry run for Mars-capable technology. Moreover, the moon also provides a viable, and relatively economical site from which to launch a Mars mission, whose technical requirements are too taxing for any current earthbound rocket to consider for purposes of direct human travel.

The Chang’e series of moon shots has made China a creditable moon power, first achieving a lunar orbit in 2007, followed by successful soft landings in 2013 and 2018. In January 2019, the Chang’e 4 made a daring landing on the far side of the lunar orb. This unprecedented mission required close coordination with the Queqiao, a lunar communication relay satellite that is required to keep the isolated landing craft, which remains permanently out of earth view, in touch with radio waves from the home planet.  

The current Chang’e-5 mission, launched November 24, 2020, promises to cement China’s status as a leading space power if it succeeds at its rock-collecting task.


China’s Historical Interest in Space Travel

China may be a late arrival to the space race, long dominated by the US and Russia, but not for lack of imagination. Literary legend Lu Xun translated “From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne at the dawn of the twentieth century and dabbled in science fiction with his own “Yuejie luxing bianyan” or “Journey to the Moon,” hoping to promote an interest in science. Decades before China ventured into space, writer Mao Dun credited the traditional legend of moon goddess Chang’e (after which the latest line of moon craft is named) as a powerful native archetype for lunar exploration. 

The Queqiao satellite references the “Magpie Bridge” in the Chinese legend of the Cowherd and Weaver, which is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, while the Yutu, or “jade rabbit” Rover refers to the steady companion of moon goddess Chang’e.

When Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite was launched, Mao Zedong hinted that Chinese satellites would follow. He joined Khrushchev to hail the flight of Sputnik II which was launched during his 1957 Moscow visit, carrying space dog Laika on a lamentable one-way journey. 


Mao and Khrushchev in Moscow in July 1958

Subject to serious disruptions due to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, China did not launch its own satellite, Dongfanghong 1, until 1970. It then famously beamed the iconic tune “East is Red” back to earth, but there was little follow up due to continued political distractions and economic constraints. 

By May 1971, just before Mao’s second-in-command Lin Biao met his demise in a mysterious plane crash over Outer Mongolia, China’s Chairman revealed to visiting Romanian head of state Nicolae Ceaușescu that China had neither the capabilities nor interest to go to the moon. 

Premier Zhou Enlai then reportedly cut in to say, "It doesn't even have air or water... The problems on earth haven't been solved, but they want to go up to the moon, it's ridiculous."


The Moon proved to be out of Mao's reach


Zhou makes a valid lament about conditions on earth, but there may also be a touch of sour grapes to the dismissive comment about the US space program, coming as they did during the peak of the stunningly successful Apollo series of missions. 

Fast forward 50 years and China, thanks to a booming economy and prudent investment in science, is a contender in technology and space. If everything goes according to plan, the Chang’e 5 lunar lander will scoop up rock samples from a lunar crater and return several kilograms of geological treasure to the Earth in late December. 


China’s Chang’e Moon Program   

The 18,000-pound craft, launched successfully by a Long March 5 rocket from a base on Hainan Island on November 23, is divided into four sections. It includes a service module and a “returner” capsule designed for re-entry to earth along with a lunar lander and lunar ascender. The latter pair of units will land on the moon while the other pair will remain in moon orbit until it is time to return to earth. 


Simulation of Chang'e lunar ascender lifting off from lunar lander


After the moon lander takes measurements and collects samples on the lunar surface, the ascender section will then be shot back into lunar orbit, using the base of the lander as a launch pad, echoing the modular design of the Apollo lunar craft. The “returner” capsule is designed to catapult through earth’s atmosphere, using a “skip re-entry” to slow down for a parachute landing in Inner Mongolia. 

It’s a complicated mission that requires a tricky lift-off from the moon, orbital docking, an automated transfer of materials from the ascender to the return capsule and a high-velocity return to earth. A single failure anywhere in the complex chain of necessary tasks could end the costly effort instantly. Space travel remains a high-risk endeavor. Indeed, the Chang’e 5, experienced a three-year mission delay due to the July 2017 explosion of a Long March rocket resulting from a first-stage booster failure.


Heavy-lifting Chang Zheng (Long March) rocket in flight


The Chang’e 5 craft is targeted to land in a lunar volcanic plain known as Oceanus Procellarum. NASA’s Apollo 12 and other craft landed in that same general region half a century ago, but this mission will focus on a particular volcanic formation known as Mons Rumker. It successfully landed on December 1.


Chang’e 5 moon landing, December 1, 2020


The aim of the probe is to drill, dig and analyze relatively pristine lunar rock, (just over a billion years old) in contrast to the Apollo mission samples which have been dated at 3 to 4 billion years old. This seemingly arcane task will help geologists establish benchmarks for dating ancient rock on earth as well, where erosion from wind and water has irrevocably altered the surface. 



The Chang’e 5 mission is an abbreviated one, scheduled to last a single day on the moon, a lunar day that is, which amounts to two weeks earth time. It will study its landing site with ground-penetrating radar, panoramic cameras, and an imaging spectrometer.

Once the sun sets below the cratered horizon of Oceanus Procellarum, an unimaginably cold night follows, with temperatures dropping to a minus 232 degrees centigrade. Chang’e, covered in reflective foil, is designed to handle the scorching day-time temperatures of 120 degrees centigrade, but being solar-powered, it is not equipped to deal with a deep freeze lasting a fortnight. During the Apollo program, manned visits were timed around lunar dawn and dusk when the shadows are long, the surface is in high contrast and temperatures are in transition from very hot to very cold.

If Chang’e 5 proves a success, an almost identical model, the Chang’e 6, will aim to land near the south pole of the moon. The lunar polar area, with its oblique shadows and angled sunlight, contains murky craters likely to contain water in the form of ice. Elsewhere on the moon, the searing radiation of sunlight causes the instant sublimation of water and ice into the atmospheric vacuum, preventing any accumulation. 

The shadowy pole area is deemed uniquely suitable for a potential moon base due to the likely presence of water, which is too heavy to transport from Earth but is vital for survival. Water can be used to produce food, rocket fuel, and breathable oxygen, and a layer of ice, if available in abundance, offers natural shelter from deadly solar rays. 





Super-Power Competition or Cooperation in Space?

China’s entry into a field long dominated by the US and Russia is reinvigorating the moribund competition of moon travel. It’s also raising the important question of whether it’s better to work together or go it alone. Protectionist US politicians, fearful of technical espionage, banned China from the US-led Space Station in 2011. The Wolf Amendment, also known as the China Exclusion Policy, was proposed by Republican Senator Frank Wolf, and passed into law despite objections from NASA and scientific researchers. The amendment specifically targets China; its prohibitions on the sharing of space science are not extended to Russia, Japan or any other nation. 

Being thus snubbed, China has set into motion plans to construct its own space station, the Tiangong, (Heavenly Palace) which may be the only viable station orbiting earth when the creaky International Space Science Institute station is retired at some point in the next few years. 

The International Space Science Institute in Beijing posted a picture of a commemorative Coca Cola, American in origin, celebrating the Chang-e 5 mission, but will Americans be welcome aboard the Tiangong and allowed to share the fruits of this historic mission?



According to Russia Today, the US is pressuring China to allow "the global scientific community" access to any newly-gained moon rocks and other research findings. But that's just Russia Today gently trolling the US for its exceptionalist arrogance. 

The same mean-spirited Wolf Amendment of 2011 that denies China access to the space station ironically denies the US access to moon rocks and scientific findings from China’s current moon missions as well. 

While Newton posited that science necessarily involved borrowing, that is, standing on the shoulders of giants, and every developing and technologically advanced nation has done its own borrowing, lifting or stealing technology to get where it is today, it seems the US attitude these days is to “build a wall” to keep the science and technology of rival countries apart, as witnessed in the fierce US ban Huawei and the fight to control 5-G standards. In the jaundiced view of the US security establishment, the only thing worse than “backward” China copying US technology is a competent and advanced China outperforming the US in science and tech, as the Huawei case illustrates.

Certainly, vigorous arguments can be made pro and con for nuanced measures designed to limit the “stealing” of copyrighted technology, but the infelicitous unintended results of banning cooperation with China, and China alone, on the part of the US Congress are only beginning to be felt.

As if to justify the pre-existing hostile stance, the US national security establishment is casting a wary eye on the Chang’e program. Space Force General John Raymond sees Chinese success in space as a threat to US hegemony. The same rocket science that lifts Chang’e into orbit can carry missiles, and the same kind of precision and control of satellite technology as used in the moon shot can theoretically be deflected to disable US satellites and thus disrupt communications, if not the entire GPS system. 

US Air Force veteran Raymond, who was deployed in both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, illustrates this risk with hypocrisy, castigating China for its 2007 kinetic kill (deliberate collision) that involved targeting its own weather satellite, even though the US has experimented with its own satellite-killing technology since the 1960s. Both nations are well aware that intercept and “kill” technology has possible military applications, though it can also be used to push malfunctioning craft into a fiery, self-obliterating descent to earth.

On February 21, 2008 President George W. Bush authorized the shoot-down of a US satellite with an attack missile launched from the deck of the USS Lake Erie missile cruiser. A bravado show of US technical prowess, the militaristic “kill” of spy satellite USA 193 was spun in US government press releases as being an environmentally-friendly “clean-up.” It was supposed to reduce the risk of toxic hydrazine fuel and space debris returning to earth, though it ended up creating a debris cloud which led to launch delays of other craft. The exercise earned a rebuke from Russian defense observers unimpressed by the phony cover story.


SM-3 missile that intercepted USA-193 (Wiki)


US General Raymond concludes that space “underpins all our instruments of power” and warns that Russia and China will cooperate against American interests. There’s more than a whiff of self-fulfilling prophecy in Raymond’s prognosis. Thanks to the Wolf Amendment and earlier restrictions, China’s program, by necessity, has hewed close to Russian prototypes. The Shenzhou capsule, for example, is modeled after the sturdy and dependable Soyuz craft. 

On the other hand, history shows that Sino-Russian cooperation is not a given. Shortly after Mao met Khruschev in Moscow, extolling bilateral solidarity, diplomatic relations between the two powers went into freefall, and it wasn’t until the end of the Gorbachev era that cooperation got back on track. Meanwhile, the US and Russia have cooperated not just in the realm of space science and shared use of the Space Station, but in nuclear disarmament. 






US go-it-alone pride and intransigence in the era of America First has surely played a part in pushing Moscow and Beijing closer together. Likewise, hostility towards all things Chinese threatens not just commerce and diplomatic cooperation, but scientific cooperation on vital issues such as climate and Covid-19. Educational cooperation likewise is eroding due to new, severe restrictions on Chinese access to American higher education and technology. The hostility whipped up by paranoid and borderline racist politicians threatens to discourage some of the best and brightest Chinese students and researchers from studying or working in the US. It also impacts on Asian Americans as well as a result of hostility toward China ranging from scapegoating China for the Covid-19 pandemic to its favorable balance of trade.

Is it really in the US interest to “punish” China if it results in pushing China and Russia into developing a high level of interoperability, shared specifications and synergistic cooperation? 

If Chang’e 5 proves a success, an almost identical Chang’e 6, will endeavor to land near the moon’s south pole, a big step on the road to building a lunar base and a promising way station for a manned mission to Mars. 


See “Late to the Space Race, China is making strides with Chang’e 4 Moon LandingSouth China Morning Post, November 28, 2020


China Shoots the Moon

December 1, 2020
Volume 18 | Issue 23 | Number 3
Article ID 5520

Sunday, November 29, 2020


 (published as "Looking at Earth from Space" in China-US Focus, November 2020)

Now is a good time for the US and China to get serious about a joint mission to Mars. Russia is a natural partner, too. The earth, currently embroiled in pandemic turmoil and political delirium, desperately needs to take a bracing look at itself from afar. 

By looking at our globe from the heavens, we gain a perspective that puts petty nationalism in its place. Looking at the earth from afar, a beautiful, eye-catching blue-and-green ball cloaked in gossamer veneer of swirling white clouds, is a reminder that we all live on the same finite planet. The boundaries that men kill and die for are not indelibly etched, but barely scratch the surface. Even the Great Wall of China is invisible from space to the naked eye. 

A small news item easily lost in the increasingly frantic, negative, and fanatic 24/7 news cycle concerns a call for US-China cooperation in space. 

Going against the general tide of media-driven opinion and emotional nationalism, which posits China as public enemy number one, is Charles Bolden, the former head administrator of NASA. 

Bolden wants China and the US to cooperate in space, and step number one is to overrule or get around the Wolf Amendment which bars federal funding to any space collaboration with China, effectively barring China from the Space Station. The protectionist legislation, promulgated in 2011 while Bolden was the head of the US space agency, has tied the hands of NASA administrators for a decade now. 

The space station would be an ideal environment to practice cooperation and iron out technical incompatibilities. As it did for the divergent space programs of the US and Russia, the orbiting laboratory is a suitably neutral place to bring contending programs closer together, transcending political differences in the spirit of science. 

The next obvious step would be cooperation on Mars. 

Putting a joint mission to Mars is a gargantuan task, but no less so than going at it alone, because politics can get in the way of science. But for each nation to have its own space program imposes unforgiving costs and deprives the push into space of international camaraderie and the synergy of cooperation. 

The history of US-Russian cooperation in space is proof positive that two countries, erstwhile enemies with uneasy political relations, can benefit from cooperation. 

Common sense calls for it, and natural science does not recognize national boundaries. 

The quest for knowledge has from time immemorial been built on borrowings and exchange, not just the shoulders of giants, as Newton would have it, but hand-in-hand cooperation, too. Isolation, parochialism, and irrational thinking hinder the development of knowledge beneficial to all. Indeed, in times of chaos, armed tension and strife, it is all the more important that artificial but forbidding walls are surmounted, and doors and windows of international perception are kept open.  

At this current historic moment of unprecedented presidential bellicosity, when Donald Trump uses the platform of the White House to make racist jabs about China, blame China for all US woes, and threaten to make China “pay,” it is important for saner minds to prevail, for the center to hold. 

It’s time for people who see through the craziness of the current moment to speak up for a saner, safer world. 

Millions of ordinary Chinese and Americans do so every day, albeit quietly, cherishing the ties that bond and differences that fascinate between cultures, but it is less common in the corridors of power where differences of race and nation are being exploited for crude political benefit. 

While at NASA, Bolden was no ordinary pencil-pushing bureaucrat. He is a US military veteran and an experienced astronaut. He flew four missions on the US Space Shuttle, logging 680 hours in space, including a joint Russian mission onboard the Discovery. He served as NASA’s chief administrator for eight years during the Obama administration– so he’s well-versed in the politics of space as well. 

He acknowledges that the current US president and congress stand in the way of that happening, but he makes a clarion call for more cooperation, confident that it is the best way forward. 

Bolden cites China’s successful soft landing of Chang’e on the far side of the moon as a pioneering accomplishment that everyone can be proud of. It’s not just about China, any more than the July 1969 landing on the moon “for all mankind” was just about America. 

Speaking to China Daily reporters, Bolden expressed the hope that the US and China would cooperate in space, but for that to happen, political protectionism needs to ease. 

Bolden has long struggled against the politicized legislation of the Wolf Amendment, calling it a "significant legal constraint" and "hindrance" to joint US-China space should be “relaxed or reversed.” 

What’s more, time is of the essence.

"My firm belief is that we should integrate China into the International Space Station program. It doesn't have a lot of time left," Bolden said, referring to the planned retirement of the ISS in a few years. Working together on the aging space station would help China "avoid some of the mistakes that were made with building the International Space Station."

National space programs cannot be instantly integrated, if only because the go-it-alone ethos has led each nation to develop some unique features and idiosyncratic standards, but such technical challenges can be bridged. The Shenzhou, inspired by the technology behind Russia’s Soyuz craft, has no easy way to dock at the American port on the space station but could be adapted to dock at the Russian port thanks to the similar technology.

After the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, the US lacked launch capability for sending crews into space and for almost a decade had to rely solely on “getting a lift” by Russia’s Soyuz capsule to transit space and earth.

It’s a testament to the value of international cooperation that the sturdy Soyuz capsule, launched atop powerful Russian rockets based at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, made it possible for Americans to access the American-built space station.

Undeterred by its years in the Wolf Amendment wilderness, China has pressed ahead, developing its spacecraft and developing plans for its own space station. Named Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, China’s space station is expected to be up and running around 2022. The timing is critical because the US-built International Space Station, while a technological wonder, is getting creaky and is due to be retired in 2024.

If the US station is mothballed and the Chinese space station does not proceed as planned, there may no longer be any space station left for the world’s scientists to work on.

What’s more, how can the extremely complex and dauntingly expensive mission to Mars be contemplated if nations don’t pool resources, ingenuity and knowledge?  For Mars to happen– if it is ever to happen– cooperation has to take place on earth first.

"Who thought Nixon would ever go to China?" Bolden slyly asked his Chinese interlocutors. Perhaps the question puzzled them. While the “Nixon-in-China” meme has long been a shorthand way for Americans to say it’s time to think out of the box, the phrase takes on a new, ironic meaning in the present context.  

Nixon succeeded in bridging the then-formidable political chasm between the US and China by boldly making a trip to Beijing. 

Now the challenge is to bridge the widening gap between the US and China by boldly joining Beijing to make a joint trip to Mars.

Monday, November 9, 2020



The unhinged mental state of the US commander in chief remains a clear and present danger and of global concern, even as he goes kicking and screaming in what is supposed to be a peaceful transition period. Let’s us not forget that this unreasonable man fired his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, for opposing the deployment of US troops against US citizens. In his stead, he has appointed Christopher Miller, a counter-intelligence special operations man, skipping over the next in line, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.


Is it possible that Trump still has access to the “nuclear football?”

Is it sensible to allow a man so inherently unstable and intemperate retain tactical control of the world’s deadliest arsenal?


The aftermath of a US presidential election is, in normal times, a moment to muse about possible new policy directions of the candidate who prevailed at the polling booth. But these are not normal times and instead the world watches with bated breath as the US shows signs of cracking up from within.


China has yet to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden, perhaps wary of Trump’s ability to wreak havoc in the two months remaining in his term, since China is a frequent target of his wrath. Russia is watching on standby as well.


Meanwhile, nations with traditionally close relationships with the United States, including England, Canada and Japan have already offered the ritual congratulations as expected in the aftermath of a presidential election. Even hard-core Republicans close to Donald Trump have urged him to recognize, grudgingly if not graciously, Biden’s victory at the polls, as officially announced on November 7, 2020


But Trump instead, is proving himself a loser. He somehow manages to ruin everything he touches, even democracy itself.


The vain leader’s unwillingness to yield in the face of facts not to his liking has put his nation on cliff’s edge, dangerously in abeyance. A catastrophe waiting to happen. Shell-shocked Americans await with bated breath, while an underwhelmed world looks on with bemused puzzlement, derision and fear.


What happened?


Why wasn’t the man who lies, cheats and steals as a matter of course, the man who routinely polarizes, incites violence, and spews intolerance not been clearly repudiated at the polls.

Why was he not swept away in a massive landslide?


How can such a venal politician still have millions of supporters in a supposedly advanced nation with a vigorous free press and a robust democratic tradition?


Historians will ponder this painful paradox for years to come.


By all indications, Joe Biden is beyond any shadow of doubt the winner of the popular vote, and if the popular vote was all that counted, it might well be over now.


Due to historic peculiarities of the American “democratic” system, the difference of a few thousand votes at the state level can flip an election, even with one candidate way ahead of the other nationally. 


The Electoral College makes it possible for winners to lose and losers to win. It’s happened twice in recent times, in the Bush versus Gore contest of 2000, and the Trump versus Hillary contest of 2016. This system is deeply flawed, and when the contest is a close one, it is downright infuriating.  


The unsettling prospect of both sides claiming victory, one by the polls, the other by spurious claims and trumped up legal challenges is due in no small part to the fecklessness of the sore-loser in the White House who goads his followers to believe that his loss is their loss and that losing is not an option.


Already Trump supporters are being prepped by incendiary tweets, and cheerleading from Trump-friendly media to alternately declare victory or cry foul in a way that screams, “losing is not an option!”


If losing is not an option, it’s not democracy. If one side concocts a false win, it’s authoritarianism.


Recounts have been demanded. Court challenges and lawsuits are already being put in play because even a hopeless lawsuit takes time and drags things out for a loser who doesn’t want to accept the inevitable.


Once Pennsylvania showed an early Trump lead, the president tweeted, “Stop the Vote” yet perversely pressed for more vote-counting in states where he was behind. This is characteristic of his hypocritical character.


As if the conflict between the slam-dunk popular vote and a power-drunk incumbent is not bad enough, red and blue America, badly in need of bridging differences, are instead being triggered to continue on the road to civil war.  The way Trump seems to look at it, if he doesn’t win, nobody does. 


After a joyous day of dancing in the streets and sighing a collective relief about the madness of the erratic Trump administration coming to an end, conflict is being stoked again by partisan political operatives and pro-Trump media outlets, pitting the slanted worldview of one against the world.


It’s not just opinions that differ, in the red and blue precincts of America; even basic facts can’t be agreed upon. Whether it’s about Covid, climate change or counting votes, consensus remains elusive. There’s scant comfort in the neutrality of math and legal checks and balances when lies have as much currency as truth.


What a tragic mess.


America was never the beacon on the hill it pretended to be, but it did enjoy global popularity and prestige after World War Two. Yet over time, imperial self-regard and a culture of violence at home and abroad has worked to erode much of the moral ground it once possessed. But only in this most recent election cycle, has the very democratic system of the world’s “leading democracy” come into question.


Observers look on with horror and amazement as the US President, a powerful world leader promise to take the country down if he doesn’t get his way. His willingness to cheat, lie and steal his way to get what he wants is legendary. He offends common courtesy, common sense and common decency by tweet-blasting petty complaints, documentable lies, intemperate takes, confused facts.


Two days after election day, a pouting, whining, truculent Trump went on TV, using the bully pulpit of the White House, to claim he had been cheated, even though a win was not statistical viable at that point. Spouting lies and betraying a weak grasp of reality, he cast aspersions on Detroit and Philadelphia, known for large minority populations, and proceeded to incite his followers to protest any result not in his favor.


The clownish petulance would be funny, worthy of a late-night comedy sketch, or the theatre of the absurd, were the stakes were not so high.



Trump is unlikely to make any progress on the legal front because he has no case. But he can make trouble, delay transition and perhaps even provoke a crisis to increase his emergency powers.  


Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has observed that the US has not been so divided since the 1850’s, a period which was prelude to the Civil War. The sense of a shared national project and respect for fellow citizens across the political divide is at a nadir


Both warring tribes tend to see the other as the enemy, fueled by the echo chambers of two parallel media ecosystems, one red, the other blue.


The election of 2020 has become the Schrodinger’s Cat of elections.


The candidacy of the loser is simultaneously dead and alive.


But the counter-intuitive patterns of particle physics are not sustainable in the political arena. The cognitive dissonance is mind-cracking. If the losing side does not concede defeat, the whole system will break down.


Political collapse of the world’s most powerful country is not out of the question, and if it should crash and burn, it will be the most dangerous country as well.


Even if nothing apocalyptic happens, the leadership vacuum of a prolonged impasse will have unintended consequences around the world.


Come what will, the bitter fruits of the election of 2020 will muddle US politics, and the way American power plays out in the global arena, for many years to come.