by Chen Yanbei, Guo Shuang
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) -- Space stations not only allow humanity to learn how to function beyond earth, but are also important stepping stones for further exploration, said Edward Stone, a renowned American space scientist, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, and former director of the U.S. space agency NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
At 3:31 Wednesday morning Beijing Time, the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, carrying two Chinese astronauts, successfully docked with Tiangong-2, bringing China one step further toward a permanent presence in space.
"Advanced nations are eager to establish their presence in the new frontier of space," emphasized Stone in an interview with Xinhua.
Stone is best known as the leader of NASA's Voyager program, whose twin spacecraft were launched in the summer of 1977, and has studied Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune between 1979 and 1989. According to NASA, the Voyager 1 spacecraft has become the first human-made object to reach interstellar space, the distance between stars. Stone has since led nine other space missions, and was director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1991 to 2001. The renowned scientist is also Executive Director of the Thirty-Meter-Telescope International Observatory.
Stone told Xinhua that space is the "newest realm of human activity," and a new frontier for humankind.
First of all, space is a "physical frontier" that humans or spacecraft must physically reach. It then becomes a "knowledge frontier" that contains a lot of exciting unknowns awaiting exploration, he noted.
New tools at a "technology frontier" then must be developed to explore space. These tools will then give rise to an "application frontier" containing new technology that benefits lives on earth by enabling new ways of telecommunication, navigation, and weather forecast for example, and producing new materials and new substances under the microgravity environment of space.
Finally, although much of the space frontier can be explored with machines and robots, as Stone has done throughout his distinguished career, human spaceflight has the unique role of developing and exercising our own abilities to survive and operate in this new "human frontier."
"Humans did not evolve to live in space," said Stone, and "human space flight is about exploring space, but more importantly about understanding how humans can function in space."
Not only should new tools and new modes of operations be invented to sustain humans in space, it is also important to study how the human body and mind respond to the space environment, like weightlessness and lower pressure.
Space stations, being a few hundred kilometers above ground, are the closest available space environment, and provide important training ground for further explorations, Stone told Xinhua.
With the current U.S.-led International Space Station expected to retire in 2024, China could be the only nation with a long-term presence in space.
Stone cited the International Space Station, a collaboration between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, as an example of international cooperation in human space flight.
Unfortunately, at this moment, there is no China-U.S. collaboration in space flight, although scientists from the two nations are collaborating broadly in astronomy and astrophysics -- exploring the "knowledge frontier" together, but from the ground.
For example, academic institutions from the U.S., Canada, China, India and Japan are collaborating to build the next-generation giant ground-based telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope.
But the TMT project has been delayed, yielding nerve-racking uncertainties. Despite this, Stone told Xinhua that he continues to look forward to future space-related U.S.-China collaborations.