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Security Fears Impede U.S. Space Cooperation with Rising China

Then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin (right) meets with Chinese officials during his landmark 2006 trip to China. “My thought back then is the same as it is now. ... [T]hough their tone toward us is certainly adversarial, that should not deter efforts on our part to cooperate with them in space,” Griffin said. Credit: NASA photo

GOLDEN, Colo. — As China readies its first robotic Moon lander and plots out a large space station for the early 2020s, U.S. space policy experts see a window for space collaboration, but one that is tempered by national security concerns and issues of global space leadership.

“There is a certain inevitability about the United States and China finding areas for space cooperation,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute in Washington.

“To have leading space countries going their separate paths does not make sense in today’s world,” Logsdon told SpaceNews. “The process of learning how to work together may be slow, but it seems to me that it is in both countries’ interests to start down that path, while recognizing that there are areas of competition as well as cooperation.”

Fully loaded space program

Seven years ago this fall, Mike Griffin led NASA’s first high-level delegation to China. Upon his return, Griffin — who had become NASA administrator the previous year — said he had learned a lot during his five-day trip but that human spaceflight cooperation would have to wait until there was more openness and trust between the United States and China. “My thought back then is the same as it is now. The Chinese are obviously intending to have a fully loaded space program,” Griffin told SpaceNews in September. “[T]hough their tone toward us is certainly adversarial, that should not deter efforts on our part to cooperate with them in space.” 

The United States and the Soviet Union were Cold War adversaries looking for a thaw when the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project culminated in 1975 with the first international handshake in space through the open hatch of the two docked spacecraft. Twenty years later, the Shuttle-Mir program saw NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts working side by side in space, setting the stage for the international space station (ISS) in orbit today.

Griffin said what worked for the United States and Russia could work with China. 

“But — and this is a key ‘but’ — China will not cooperate with us because they think we’re such good guys,” Griffin said. “They will want to do so if, and only if, we have a space program sufficiently grand in its scope and goals that it is clearly in their interest to work with us. Right now, we have little to offer. ... We have no sensible overarching civil space policy, no grand goals, no compelling plans. Why would they want to work with us?”

Leadership, not followership

In Griffin’s view, the United States needs to work aggressively to regain national pre-eminence in human spaceflight. “We need to be clearly ahead of what others can do and where they can be. Given that, then offer to cooperate from a position of leadership, not followership,” he said.

Griffin, who served as technology chief at the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s predecessor organization and ran a tech-focused venture fund for the Central Intelligence Agency before running NASA, said tech-transfer concerns should not stop the United States from cooperating with the likes of China.

“I do understand the national security concerns about giving away technology. However, I think the risks of the United States giving away technology are far lower from a national security perspective than the risks of not being engaged with the world,” Griffin said. “It is never wrong for the U.S. to try to figure out ways to engage with other societies, whether or not they are friends or adversaries. If you are talking, you are not fighting.”

“It is to our advantage to try to find cooperative avenues between the United States and China ... and space is a very big tool in that tool box,” Griffin said.

China has put out the welcome mat to other countries for involvement in its space station effort, and Griffin said that the ISS exemplifies the way to work between nations. 

“So we shouldn’t be surprised if China says, ‘Well, that can work for us.’ China could easily decide that one important tool for accumulating global power and influence is to utilize their space program as a drawing card for cooperation with other nations, in an era when the United States doesn’t have that,” Griffin said.

Matter of will

Looking into the near-term future, Griffin supports exploring, exploiting and settling the Moon and wants to see the United States in the lead.

Griffin said history books will always note the United States sent the first 12 citizens to the Moon. “But the benefits will not go to the people who arrived first,” he said. “They will go to the people who utilize that new frontier the best.”

“In this generation, the only nation that could mount and pull together an expedition to the Moon and develop a lunar base — an analog of the ISS but on the Moon — is the United States. It’s not a matter of budget. It’s not a matter of capability. It’s a matter of will,” Griffin said. 

“It’s possible that if the U.S. doesn’t step forward to the Moon, a next generation of space explorers — China — could perhaps lead an international coalition on the Moon,” he said. “And that, in my opinion, will be harmful to U.S. global leadership interests.”

Civilian, commercial dialogue 

“I think we should let our civilian and our commercial space sectors interface with the Chinese,” said former House Science Committee Chairman Robert Walker, an aerospace lobbyist and executive chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates in Washington.

“We have as much to learn from them at the present time as they have to learn from us,” Walker told SpaceNews. “We don’t have a fix on their space operations. … We have not been on the inside of their decision-making process.”

Walker cautions about engaging China on the national security front, “in large part because their People’s Liberation Army operates very independently from the civilian government,” he said. 

Walker supports a dialogue between the United States and China — “I think it is useful for us to go as far as we can without compromising our national security assets,” he said — and feels that the United States should be looking for avenues to allow the Chinese to participate on the ISS. 

“We are dealing primarily with technology there that’s 20 and 30 years old,” Walker said. “I don’t think the Chinese are likely to learn very much from us about our primary technologies by participating,” he said.

By having China on ISS, Walker said, “we might get an opportunity to visit theirs.”

Two sorts of issues

Jeff Bingham, a former senior U.S. Senate space staffer, said involving China in the ISS raises two sorts of issues, political and pragmatic.

“The political one is probably best represented by the very negative position taken by Congressman Frank Wolf [R-Va.], chairman of NASA’s appropriations subcommittee in the House, regarding any participation or even interaction with China on the part of NASA or any of its programs,” Bingham said.

Plenty of U.S. lawmakers, Bingham said, share Wolf’s distrust of China.

More pragmatically, he said, the United States and its ISS partners would need to consider what resources China would bring to the table and what the current partners would have to provide in exchange. 

The space station’s research capacity — measured in crew time and access to experiment facilities — is almost fully “allocated” among the current partners, Bingham said. What is more, under current agreements, that capacity “cannot be used for other purposes by NASA or other partners to, for example, offer research capacity to China in exchange for crew and cargo delivery or additional research activity,” he said.

Bingham said he does not see anything, as a practical matter, that the ISS partnership could offer the Chinese in exchange for their participation, other than something like a backup crew and cargo capability on a reimbursable basis, just as the Soyuz will be, once U.S. commercial cargo and crew capabilities are fully operational.

What value the Chinese would see in that seems obscure, Bingham said, other than gaining insight into mature space station operations and research activity, which they could apply to their own planned station effort. “And that is almost sure to be the very kind of ‘insight’ that Congressman Wolf and others would not be thrilled about offering to the Chinese,” he said.

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