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It's the third time China lets a rocket come back to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A rocket is expected to fall back to Earth somewhere sometime this afternoon. It's a Chinese rocket that carried a module to a space station under construction. And we use the word somewhere and sometime because its re-entry is uncontrolled. Jim Head is a planetary scientist with Brown University whose research involves collaborating with China's space program. He joins us now.

Professor, thanks for being with us.

JIM HEAD: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: We have no idea where it'll hit.

HEAD: Well, it is a problem. I mean, you know, we're used to thinking of rendezvous and docking and all the things the Apollo missions did, etc. But most space vehicles that go up out into space carry with them little rockets that are thrusters, which can let you maneuver around and control that spacecraft. But launch vehicles are huge, and they expend all their fuel on the way up to get this - like, a space station module that the Chinese just launched up into orbit. And so the bottom line is, you don't have any of those little thrusters on it. And so once it's done its job, it falls towards the Earth, and then it's up to the atmosphere and lots of other variables where it's going to fall. Fortunately, the Earth is two-thirds oceans, but it's really pretty unpredictable. And for example, that's why we launch from Cape Canaveral, not the middle of Des Moines, Iowa, because we send it out over the ocean and then warn the ships that, hey, something's coming down. Usually you never even hear about it that way.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, to point out the obvious, yes, the Earth is two-thirds ocean, but it's also one-third not ocean. And in theory, the rocket booster could break up and also hit in downtown Des Moines. I gather this is the third time China has allowed something like this to happen. Is there more they could and should be doing?

HEAD: You know, they're starting to launch things from Wenchang and places where - you know, that's more towards the sea. They are concerned about this. There's no question about that. And it is a clear and present danger because it isn't just the rocket hitting. It's the - any unspent fuel that might be in there as well, which is sometimes a problem.

SIMON: What will they gain from having their own space station orbiting the Earth?

HEAD: There's a lot that space does. For example, in the Apollo program, Apollo 11 brought pride and prestige to the United States. Pride is how we view ourselves. We really accomplished something. That was my first job, was working on the Apollo program. And then prestige is how others view you. And so prestige is a really important aspect. And so it's not only for technological development. I mean, getting into space is not trivial, and it's really incredible to be able to do this sort of thing. But it is also international leadership, and that's clearly what the Chinese are trying to do. And this is, you know, right out of the space exploration playbook of the Soviet Union, of Russia, of the United States, in terms of using it as also a foreign policy tool.

SIMON: We should note there's a law that enjoins NASA from working with the Chinese space program. It sounds like they're really in competition with the U.S.

HEAD: Well, that's exactly true. You know, each international space program is in a way in competition. But, you know, it's a big solar system out there. It's a big universe. James Webb just reminded us of that. And so there's plenty to do. And I think, you know, one of the reasons I encourage collaboration scientifically is because if they could do things that we aren't going to do or can't do, that's all the better for science in general. So, yes, there is competition. And, of course, there's also national security issues, which we must keep in mind. No one is naive enough to think that we can just like, OK, open the books to our international colleagues. But in general, the bridges we build with scientists, the scientists' interaction are really helpful, and they diminish the stereotypes that we all hear about on both sides.

SIMON: Jim Head of Brown University, thanks so much for being with us.

HEAD: Thank you very much.

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

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