Thursday, July 30, 2020

MARS WINDOW: In the Spirit of Isaac Newton

Earth and Moon as seen by Tianwen en route to Mars

Philip J Cunningham

China launched a daring Mars mission on July 23, 2020 that aims to land a robotic rover on the red planet next year. The Tianwen Mars mission is an important step into space, not just because it is a bold, science-driven endeavor of exquisite complexity, but because it is an inspiration to earth-bound youth--not just in China but across the world--who are growing up during a pandemic and a political environment where science isn’t always taken seriously and irrationality looms large.

Tianwen-1 was launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft launch site on Hainan Island during a “window” that makes the most of the relative positions of Earth and Mars and is scheduled to intercept the orbit of the red planet next February, Earth time. It will be propelled to follow a curvaceous Hohmann Transfer Orbit, the calculus of which counter-intuitively requires launch before the two planets are at their closet point and arrival after the planets have drifted apart again.

The craft has three main components: an orbiter and a lander with a detachable rover. The rover will roll off the lander and unfold its solar panels to power its exploration of the landing zone. Cameras, probes and sensors will simultaneously monitor Mars from above and on the ground, studying the climate and terrain.

Tianwen-1 is “a really ambitious mission driven by science that represents significant progress in China’s space program,” according to Australian astrobiologist David Flannery. The program can be seen as a test run for the even more difficult mission of collecting rock samples on Mars and returning them to earth, scheduled for 2030. America’s NASA, the undisputed leader in Mars exploration to date, can deploy the technology necessary to collect untainted samples of Martian soil and store it in tubes, but it has no craft currently capable of returning the precious samples to earth.

Given the complexity of the mission, which requires several tricky transfers, and the eagerness of scientists around the world to study such material for traces of microscopic life begs the question: Isn’t international cooperation the best way forward?
Flannery further points out that China has been sharing its data sets of the Moon and hopes it does the same with Mars, for “space belongs to everyone.

The same could be said for scientific accomplishments everywhere in the present-day world. Science is a beautiful thing, owned by no one and guided by laws beyond human tampering, but capable of being harnessed to benefit mankind.

An earlier Chinese Mars probe, the Yinghuo-1, was launched on a Russian rocket in 2011 but never got beyond earth orbit due to engine failure of the launch vehicle, a reminder that space shots are never easy. The US, Russia, and Japan have seen expensive missions get wiped out due to crash landings, propellant leaks, failure of solar panel deployment and faulty software. Mars missions have a failure rate of about 50% which calls for a special kind of perseverance.

Geng Yan of China’s National Space Administration was candid about how Mars poses a different order of challenge than the moon. “We only have a limited understanding of Mars. There are still many uncertainties about the environment and great risks.”

China has moved beyond that regrettable setback with the highly-successfully Chang’e lunar missions, the most recent of which engaged in ground-breaking exploration of the “darkside” of the moon.

The dark side is not any darker than the side of the moon we are familiar with, but because the moon is locked into an earth orbit by which one side never faces earth, direct radio contact is impossible. To maintain contact with a craft on the far side of the moon, a relay communications satellite placed in a “halo” orbit was integral to the mission.

The gravity of Mars and its thin atmosphere pose challenges to a soft landing. Dust storms are a known hazard, having disabled at least one American rover, and the solar panels that will power Tianwen’s robotic rover require a different design from Yutu, the lunar rover, which operates in a vacuum.

At a time when a terrible pandemic puts large swathes of the globe on lockdown, it is important to reach for the stars, to continue to explore, experiment and dream.

Isaac Newton famously invented calculus and deepened the understanding of gravity that makes it possible to calculate with precision the orbital dynamics of Earth, Mars and spacecraft shuttling in between. That he did so while in isolation and under a kind of lockdown during the ghastly plague that hit Britain in 1665 is a remarkable testament to the power of creative thought.

But Newton didn’t just come up with these ideas on the spot, even if the story of watching an apple fall from a tree is not entirely apocryphal. Good science, like good history and good governance, is a shared project built on the incommensurable contributions of those who came before.

"If I have seen further,” Newton reminds us, with a humility befitting all scientific endeavor, “it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Thursday, July 23, 2020


By Phil Cunningham
The desperate quality of Trump’s failing administration is painfully evident in the gross mishandling of the pandemic and the frittering away of diplomatic good will, so much so that influential Republican strategists have taken the tack, “Don’t defend Trump, blame China.”

The sudden and inadequately explained closure of China’s Houston Consulate announced on July 20, 2020 is in keeping with the erratic behavior of the embattled Trump administration.  It is in keeping with Mike Pompeo's desire to combat, confront and taunt China, as outlined in his truculent and ignorant July 23, 2020 speech at the Nixon Library, calling for an end to bilateral engagement.

What crazy new provocation has the Trump administration triggered today? Expect more, on a more-or-less daily basis, in the months leading up to an election that polls and pundits alike say that Trump is likely to lose.

The expulsion of some 60 Chinese diplomats brings to a close to a long, productive chapter of US-China relations and raises fears about the rise of a new kind of US McCarthyism based on a bigoted hatred for China. The Houston consulate was the first consular mission to open during the honeymoon of the US-PRC relationship back in November 1979, not long after Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Texas during which he famously donned a cowboy hat. Given the recent precipitous decline in US-China diplomacy, the positive energy of those heady, early days has been replaced by petty bickering, if not a race for the exits.

A tit-for-tat dynamic is already painfully evident as the world’s two biggest economies tousle in trade and security affairs. Just as journalist expulsions have come to be expected in response to journalist expulsions, and withering diplomatic invective is met with incendiary, provocative language on both sides, it can be fully expected that a US consulate will be closed in China in response.

Informed speculation suggests that America’s Wuhan Consulate will be shuttered, but other missions are at risk, too. Wuhan is in some ways comparable to the Houston mission, located in the heartland and of regional importance, but low in international profile.

At least part of the ire being exhibited the by the US State Department under the belligerent leadership of former CIA chief Mike Pompeo is founded on diplomatic tomfoolery. 

The US Consulate in Wuhan has largely been running on empty since a mysterious coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, first began ravaged the central Yangtse River region. Now they want to return.

Pompeo’s spokesperson and other underlings have asserted that “diplomatic immunity” should be extended to include allowing US diplomats to enter China any time they please without taking the same tests and preventative quarantine measures as everyone else.

Diplomats are traditionally accorded perks not available to ordinary citizens, such as diplomatic channels at airports, diplomatic pouch privileges, the right to rip up parking tickets and ignore petty violations of the law, but since when are diplomats free to ignore the laws of nature? 

It’s neither good science or good logic to confuse diplomatic immunity with immunity of the Covid kind. It’s not fair, either, and not at all diplomatic, to put countless others at risk just because you don’t want to be delayed upon flying in from a hot zone.

Trump’s State Department has a weak record of compliance with public health guidelines and scientific protocol going back to the time when State arranged to evacuate Americans from Diamond Princess cruise ship. Passengers who tested positive were put on the same flight as those who tested negative. Early documented transmission of the virus on US soil dates mostly to the botched “rescue” of Americans who had been stranded in port or at sea on various commercial cruises.

What’s more, US diplomats who boarded the Diamond Princess in Yokohama Port in March 2020 did not take adequate safety precautions, and did not get tested on the arrogant presumption that healthy diplomats were immune to that sort of thing.

The same sort of cavalier attitude evident in Trump’s dismissive briefings on the virus threat was evident in the case of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which had one of the most serious virus outbreaks in the US military to date.

The captain of the ship, Brett Crozier, grew frustrated with the Navy’s cavalier attitude towards the health of his sailors when it was painfully evident that the Covid outbreak raging onboard could not be humanely contained at sea. Frustrated, he made a complaint outside Navy channels for which he was ignominiously dismissed and lost command of his ship. Even so, he was honored by his crew and in the court of public opinion for putting a higher value on human life than the Navy’s face-saving protocol.

Unfortunately, the good ship America has no captain of similar moral fiber. Donald Trump has alternated between promoting himself and denying science, leading to a botched response to the pandemic. Mike Pompeo, an outright Trump sycophant, seems to share the belief of his boss that political privilege ranks higher than good science and common sense.

China has every reason to request that fresh arrivals from the US, which has seen nearly 150,000 deaths and has been, for months now, the world epicenter for the disease, to submit to quarantine until possible infection can be ruled out.

But America has a long history of setting rules and changing the rules but not playing by the rules. It uses consulates and embassies as spy centers, and yet protests, as alleged in the case of the Houston consulate, when other countries practice the same craft.

It demands war criminals be tried in the World Court, but refuses to join, for fear of jeopardizing Americans who might be guilty of war crimes. It ignores environmental protocols. It enforces its right to free navigation but denies the same to others.

Just as the US military enjoys something akin to extra-territoriality in its bases in Japan and other countries, angering locals when rape and murder charges go unanswered, America’s policy, prompted by Trump, club, capture and kill their own citizens with broad immunity as well.

If America wants to re-people the China missions it abandoned like a sinking ship last January it is only reasonable that diplomats, of all people, should support reasonable measures to contain the disease and respect science-based mitigation to that effect.

It could furthermore be expected that the said diplomats, given the courtesy of so many privileges already, would enjoy some of the best facilities China has to offer. An American university administrator who was quarantined for two weeks in Shanghai after a visit to Europe told me the hotel was clean and comfortable, the food good and the WiFi signal better than at home.

By most reports, the facilities used for the temporary quarantine of foreigners in China is superior to the equivalent in the US, where the sloppy, ad hoc response has left many stranded and without assistance.

What is the State Department asking for, other than to fatuously insist that American exceptionalism should be bowed down to even at the risk of endangering public health?

Science doesn’t work that way and neither should diplomacy. 

Diplomatic immunity does not grant viral immunity and the sooner the America-firsters and anti-science bigots in the Trump administration recognize that, the better.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Entering Harvard Yard   (AP Photo)
July 14 update: After considerable push-back from Harvard, MIT and dozens of colleges across America, Trump has backed down from his stupid, divisive and prejudicial policy of deporting foreign students who take online courses when many universities are offering only online instruction in the interests of public health.


These are tough times for internationally-minded people, and international students in particular. Chinese students in the United States, the largest single national cohort, bear a special burden since their home country and host country are increasingly at odds.

The dislocations and distress caused by the pandemic are bad enough, but how does it make a Chinese student feel when the US president calls Covid-19 the “Kung Flu,” or the “China virus”?

Threats of deportation come on the heels not just of prejudiced language, but an orchestrated media campaign to demonize all things China. It’s not just that an aggressive electronics competitor such as Huawei that is singled out for opprobrium, or state-linked Confucius Institutes and Chinese media firms that are being shown the door, but Chinese teenagers who have come to the US to study are darkly viewed as spies.

These murky and malevolent nationalist currents threaten to upend international education as we know it

The pandemic has caused schools around the globe to shutter. Classrooms are empty while teachers scramble with online pedagogy to find new ways to pass the torch of knowledge. Meanwhile, sports, music, club activities, co-mingling and all the fun stuff cancelled.

As if all this wasn’t traumatic enough, highly-placed politicians are open purveyors of intolerance, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. They join White House advisors Peter Navarro and Stephen Miller in seeking to exploit the fear, dislocation and stress of the pandemic to promote nativist agendas.

The US hosts a million students from around the world, with 270,000 students from China.
On July 6, the Trump White House announced it would deny visas to international students if their host institutions offer only online instruction in the fall term, even if it is done for the sake of public health and safety.

To single out international students who have studied hard, trained long and travelled far for gratuitous deportation is a slap in the face of a new generation.

It is not just a cruel jab, but a self-inflicted wound. Cultural exchange has long been a core element of US diplomacy, the US economy has long been the beneficiary of highly skilled workers, and the business of educating the world is big business. The financial contribution from Chinese students alone amounts to some 15 billion US dollars in tuition and living expenses.
The soft power self-goal and economic fallout is dire enough, but resentment, once unleashed, is hard to contain. The administration’s gleeful intolerance sows emotional distress, division and further rattles a badly-rattled world.

If put into effect, the punitive measure will immediately render illegal hundreds of thousands of F-1 visa holders already in the US for an education, while pre-emptively dashing the hopes of those poised to come.

A generation of grass-roots ambassadors are being told to go back where you come from.
Not welcome anymore.

Dreams and well-laid plans are being dashed in real time, even with deposits paid and acceptance letters in hand. The obstacles to travel during the pandemic are daunting enough, but visa abrogation or denial is a game-ender.

The statue of liberty is no longer facing the sea but has turned her back to the world.

And why is the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, known by its appropriately chilly acronym ICE, is slamming the door to constructive exchange with China, India, Korea and other nations? For what lofty cause?
Trump’s abortive border wall is testament to his fear of foreigners. His documented disdain for experts suggests a long-standing intellectual insecurity, buttressed by the claim of his niece that he cheated on his SATs to get into college.

There’s even a domestic angle. The ICE directive puts pressure on school leaders to open quickly against their better judgement, in keeping with Trump’s political calculation that lockdowns and mitigation will cost him re-election.

Whatever the twisted logic, it is Machiavellian and mean-spirited.

The trauma of rejection, the lost opportunities to learn, and the hardening of national chauvinism on both sides of the Pacific will have long-lasting effects.

Newsweek has reported that the unintended effect of such racism is to make knee-jerk patriots of young people who otherwise came to the US with an open mind.

What’s more, to cast aspersions of espionage on hundreds of thousands of ordinary students is to betray the core American legal tenet, “innocent till proven guilty.”

The pandemic is a shared problem dividing people. Harsh new realities have accelerated negative trends already in place and given xenophobic politicians around the world novel excuses to demonize foreigners, deny visas and limit travel.

This body blow to international education and exchange risks creating a lost generation subject to turbulent intolerance and diminished hopes for the future.

For now, pity the Chinese student stranded in a land that says it will deport them if the college they have sacrificed so much to enroll in and attend is forced, for the sake of public health, to shift to online learning. This tough, temporary measure is not easy for anyone. Students, professors and college communities want more than anyone for campus life to go back to normal.

But these are not normal times.