China’s No. 2 space official outlined an ambitious near-term development agenda that includes some 100 satellites, a heavy-lift launch vehicle and international cooperation, including with the United States.

In an interview April 5 here at the Space Foundation’s 22nd annual National Space Symposium, Luo Ge, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration , said he has invited NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to visit China this autumn, possibly as early as September. Luo extended the invitation April 3 during an informal visit to NASA headquarters in Washington, where he met with Michael F. O’Brien, NASA associate administrator for external relations.

“When I return to Beijing I will draft an itinerary for his visit,” Luo said. He added that a visit by Griffin would be an important first step toward future space cooperation between the two countries.

Griffin told reporters at the symposium April 6 that he had learned about Luo’s invitation in an e-mail while traveling here to make his own keynote speech . “I am grateful for the invitation. … I hope it all works out great. … I have no thoughts on it beyond that,” he said.

Cooperation with China in space is a sensitive topic for U.S. government officials, many of whom are worried about technology transfer amid China’s growing military and economic power. Today, U.S.-China space cooperation is virtually nonexistent. Chinese space officials met with former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe in Washington in 2004 for informal discussions, but no agreements resulted from those meetings.

In his April 5 keynote speech at the symposium, Luo said China is open to international cooperation in all types of space activities, including human spaceflight. He stressed in the interview afterwards that China has its own independent systems now for sending astronauts to space, but still welcomes cooperative efforts.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College and an expert on China’s space program, said Luo’s remarks likely were designed to put the United States on the defensive for its reluctance to cooperate with China in space activity.

U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who was part of a congressional delegation that visited China in January to learn more about its space program, said the most immediate area of Sino-U.S. cooperation ought to be a joint docking device that would permit Chinese spacecraft to dock with NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle, the planned replacement for the space shuttle.

During his speech, Luo laid out China’s sweeping plan for launching a variety of Earth-orbiting satellites, expanding the country’s human spaceflight abilities and carrying out a multi-step program of lunar exploration.

“Generally speaking, in the coming five to eight years, we will be launching about 100 satellites,” Luo told a standing-room-only audience here.

Luo outlined an expansive roster of satellite projects in five different application areas: telecommunications, meteorology, Earth remote sensing, technology demonstration and recoverable satellites able to accommodate experiment payloads of up to a total of 3,600 kilograms.

Work also is under way on a new-generation launch vehicle able to place payloads as large as 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit and 15 metric tons into geostationary orbit. Luo said the new rocket will be fueled by kerosene. “We have achieved all technical breakthroughs. … [B] y the year 2011 we’ll be launching the first launch vehicle,” Luo said.

Building on its two human spaceflight missions, the first in October 2003 with a single astronaut and the second in October 2005 with two astronauts, China plans to launch an orbiting laboratory by 2015, Luo said. Leading up to this effort, he said, Chinese astronauts will develop spacewalking skills and the ability to rendezvous and dock spacecraft in orbit.

Luo noted several times that China is open to the possibility of international cooperation in all areas of space activity.

China also has drafted a multi-step program for lunar exploration.

Next year, the country’s first lunar orbiter mission is scheduled for launch, Luo said. By 2012, China will be landing a rover on the Moon’s surface, with sample-return missions to follow around 2017.

Luo’s presentation on China’s space ambitions was an eye-opener for many at the symposium.

“I don’t regard it as a threat … I regard it as a challenge,” said Robert Walker, former chairman of the House Science Committee and chairman of the Space Foundation’s board of d irectors. “I think the Chinese have a very ambitious space program … that they are doing for reasons of national prestige.”

Walker said China’s growing space prowess is “a very strategic kind of concept for them. If we are going to be competitive in a world environment we need to respect and do our job of anticipating and responding.”

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