A rather ill looking NASA administrator Michael Griffin looked out across the crowd of a few hundred tightly packed people in the rectangular sort-of-conference room in the Farnborough air show Space Pavillion.
Despite the leader of the world’s largest and most expensive space agency being inattendance his organisation was notably absent from the show. In 2004 NASA was there in force and the pavilion, sat next to the behemoth Lockheed Martin building, seemed larger somehow.
But this year the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology was in town to show us that nation’s plans for its future rockets.
Large models of the Long March-2F, which launched the Taikonauts in October 2003 and December 2005, and the satellite lofting Long March-2C and -3B stood impressively in the Academy's booth's corners. Pride of place in the centre was the new yet-to-be-named CZ-5.
I don’t know what it is about the number five but NASA recently renamed its Cargo Launch Vehicle the Ares V, apparently in honour of the Saturn V.
Stepping onto the Academy’s booth’s raised floor I eyed the scene. Its staff sat and stood around looking fairly bored.
With a Flight International magazine out stretched I introduced myself to the nearest person, a Chinese woman of indeterminable age.
To my surprise my greeting was returned by excellent English. Despite the ubiquitousness of English in the globalised world of aerospace in some distant outposts of the developing world, China, Russia, some parts of France, English can’t be taken for granted.
Enquiring about rocket technology and the Academy’s role in the Long March's development I was introduced to senior engineer Zhang Xu ***.
As my translator conveyed who I was one of the Chinese staff whipped out a camera and took a photo. Never one to miss a chance I gave my new found friend a big smile and a wave. I wasn’t sure if the photo would be for someone’s holiday snaps or a file image for the Chinese Ministry of State Security.
But my translator was making progress and next I found myself sat at a table with the chance to question an individual with a detailed knowledge of the world’s largest one party state’s launcher technology.
With Zhang’s limited English language ability I wasn’t about to get any scoops but it became clear the Chinese have a huge task ahead of them. Essentially their rockets so far have used UDMH, HTPB, hydrazine and nitrogen oxide for propellants, the latter being the least nasty of these compounds.
For the modular next generation vehicles there will be a complete switch to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen; a favourite of the Russians from whom the Chinese have learnt a great deal about rocket technology.
Talking through the elements of the next generation rocket a slim Chinese lady appeared in my peripheral vision. Looking up and round I saw the slim Chinese woman with a video camera filming my interview with Zhang. I began to wonder if I would appear in a promotional film about the Academy and the Chinese space programme in the near future. Not a pretty prospect with my sunburn!
The interview ended abruptly as the senior engineer was distracted by his colleagues making a dash for the British National Space Centre (BNSC) booth. My friendly linguist was also making a dash for it and my attempts to ask a few more questions came to nothing as, looking in the direction of the BNSC stand, I saw a flurry of activity around one of the older Chinese delegates inspecting EADS Astrium's Martian rover model.
Hours later I found myself stood at the back of the conference sort-of-room in one corner of the Space Pavillion. We had reached speech number four. This was from Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency vice president Kaoru Mamiya.
After him would be the previously unknown Algerian space agency, which was present to sign a memorandum of understanding for co-operation with the BNSC. With the endless speeches about working together in harmony out of the way the journalists got to ask the questions.
“Why aren’t the Chinese here?”, one demanded of Griffin.
“It’s too early for them to be involved”, the NASA chief engineer turned administrator replied, not mentioning the fact that he has a trip to China planned for September.
What he also didn’t mention was that China Great Wall Industry (GWCI), the Chinese satellite and launch provider, has had its US assets frozen by the US government
According to the US department of the treasury the GWCI has been helping naughty Iran with its missile programme. Waiting to ask my questions about Shuttle night launches, I wondered if my camera toting Academy friends knew anything about that?