Is It Time for the U.S. to Partner With China in Space?

Space experts told Congress on Wednesday that one of America’s biggest rivals could also be its next best ally in the cosmos.

Space shuttle Atlantis is seen docked to the International Space Station in July 2011. This was the final mission of the U.S. space shuttle program.
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Marina Koren
April 9, 2014, 8:23 a.m.

Only three coun­tries have ever man­aged to launch hu­mans in­to space: the United States, Rus­sia and China.

The U.S., however, hasn’t done so for three years since the re­tire­ment of its space-shuttle pro­gram, and NASA pays Rus­sia $70 mil­lion a seat to send its as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion. But the Ukraine crisis is start­ing to take a toll on U.S.-Rus­si­an space re­la­tions, and trans­port­ing as­tro­nauts with private Amer­ic­an space­flight tech­no­logy is still a few years away.

It may be time for the U.S. to ac­know­ledge the ele­phant in the room, and in­vite it to join us in space ex­plor­a­tion.

“China is an ob­vi­ous ad­di­tion to the in­ter­na­tion­al [hu­man space­flight] part­ner­ship, both for the ISS pro­gram and bey­ond,” Leroy Chiao, a former NASA as­tro­naut, said dur­ing a hear­ing of the Sen­ate Sci­ence and Space Sub­com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. “China is in a po­s­i­tion to provide hard­ware and cap­ab­il­ity in-kind.”

China is not one of the 15 par­ti­cipants of the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion pro­ject, in part be­cause of U.S. op­pos­i­tion. Last sum­mer, its space agency suc­cess­fully trans­por­ted crew to and from a space sta­tion.

Chiao’s re­marks echoed the geo­pol­it­ic­al cli­mate of the early 1990s. When the So­viet Uni­on col­lapsed, the U.S. asked Rus­sia to join its In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion pro­ject. At the time, Rus­sia couldn’t af­ford to build a sta­tion of its own, and the U.S. was be­hind sched­ule and needed help. It was a win-win situ­ation.

The U.S. could reach out to China in the same way now, said Susan Eis­en­hower, pres­id­ent of the Eis­en­hower Group and au­thor of two books on U.S.-Rus­sia space re­la­tions (and Pres­id­ent Dwight Eis­en­hower’s grand­daugh­ter).

“I think we en­gaged the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion after the col­lapse of the So­viet Uni­on not to do them a fa­vor, but to do us a fa­vor,” Eis­en­hower told the sub­com­mit­tee. “We gained un­pre­ced­en­ted ac­cess to some of their most sens­it­ive fa­cil­it­ies. If we look at the China situ­ation, we could well gain every bit as much as they might in terms of un­der­stand­ing how our two so­ci­et­ies view this im­port­ant area, and also to kind of give us that ac­cess in China.”

And China, which has so far worked alone in space, may be warm­ing to the idea. “There is a change in the Chinese at­ti­tude, with a call for co­oper­a­tion in space,” said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES, dur­ing a Janu­ary con­fer­ence of space ex­perts. “And Amer­ic­ans aren’t reti­cent — on the con­trary.”

Chiao said he was at first skep­tic­al about work­ing with the Rus­si­ans, but then be­came a “big be­liev­er” in in­ter­na­tion­al co­oper­a­tion. Gain­ing ac­cess to new tech­no­logy out­weighs some se­cur­ity risks, he said.

Some sub­com­mit­tee mem­bers wer­en’t so sure. “China in par­tic­u­lar poses a pretty in­ter­est­ing di­lemma for us,” said Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla. The U.S. needs to be “care­ful” and “real­ist­ic” about co­oper­at­ing with a space ex­plor­a­tion rival, he said, and China could use a part­ner­ship to steal sens­it­ive na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­form­a­tion.

Chiao told him that NASA has “safe­guards put in place so there are no im­prop­er tech­no­logy trans­fers” against the Rus­si­ans that it would use for the Chinese.

Ru­bio also lamen­ted NASA’s de­pend­ence on Rus­sia for as­tro­naut trans­port. NASA isn’t happy about that either, and it’s not pleased with Ru­bio and his fel­low mem­bers of Con­gress. The space agency has said that at­tempts to bring hu­man space­flight back to U.S. soil have been sty­mied by re­duced fed­er­al fund­ing in re­cent years.

“Had our plan been fully fun­ded, we would have re­turned Amer­ic­an hu­man space­flight launches — and the jobs they sup­port — back to the United States next year,” a NASA spokes­man said last week. “The choice here is between fully fund­ing the plan to bring space launches back to Amer­ica or con­tinu­ing to send mil­lions of dol­lars to the Rus­si­ans. It’s that simple.”


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