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NASA Chief Prepares for China Visit

NASA'sMike Griffin is set for his own personal space travel trek next month, flyingoverseas to Russia, Japan, and China.

LastApril, during the visit of China's President Hu Jintao to the United States, the Chineseextended an invitation to Griffin to tour their space facilities. "PresidentBush accepted that invitation, so the plan is that I will go. I'm lookingforward to it," he told SPACE.com.

Asfar as hopes and expectations of the meeting, Griffin said: "I'm notreally setting expectations. It's a get acquainted visit. There are nopre-conditions on either side. There are no demands being placed. It's a getacquainted visit to see where we might go and in forging cooperative ties with China."

Thiswill be the first visit ever by someone at the NASA Administrator governmentlevel to China to discuss space cooperation, Griffin said. "To setexpectations and conditions for such a visit would be foolish...let's go andsee."

Major player

China has a robust spaceprogram, not only for lofting satellites, but also to dispatch crews intospace.

China is the thirdnation to have independent means of sending humans into Earth orbit. The former Soviet Union accomplished the feat in 1961, followed by the United States in 1962 and China in 2003.

Todate, Chinese space officials have lofted two piloted Shenzhou spacecraft: Yang Liwei flewsolo on a Shenzhou 5 mission on October 15, 2003 and Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng conducted their Shenzhou 6 mission on October 12-16, 2005.

AShenzhou 7 mission is headed for a 2008 liftoff - this time with a three-personcrew that includes space walking tasks, according to Chinese space programauthorities.

China is also a majorplayer in launching satellites for a wide variety of purposes, includingweather-watching and Earth remote sensing.

Space officials in China are eying launch next year of theirfirst lunar orbiter - Chang'e-I.

Oneof Chang'e-I's tasks is to obtain three-dimensional images of the lunarsurface. The orbiter is part of a three-step robotic lunar program, note China space officials.Following the Chang'e-I orbiter mission, on tap in later years is landing anunmanned vehicle on the Moon and collecting samples of lunar soil with anunmanned vehicle.

Russia, Japan partners

Griffin said that he'skeen on having himself or another NASA high official on hand in Russia for any U.S. crewmember launchor landing. He said he's looking forward to an opportunity to go to Moscow, go to the Baikonourcosmodrome, and perhaps tour things he hasn't seen before, as well as get toknow more people.

Inhis pre-NASA Administrator work at the space agency, Griffin said he was up tohis eyebrows in redesigning the International Space Station to embrace Russianinvolvement in the endeavor.

Duringthat redesign, bringing the Russians onboard the project caused some hardfeelings, Griffin recalled. "But I think today the value of having added the Russians is very clear. With loss ofshuttle Columbia, the space station would have been -- I won't say dead in the water, but dead in space -- withoutour Russian partners," he said.

Asfor Japan, Griffin said he's only spent a couple of days in Japan since becoming NASA's top executive. "I expect to seea little bit of their space establishment. Japan is one of our very closest allies in theworld and one of our closest partners on the International Space Station...and inour space program generally. I want to take a couple days and visit with them."

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