U.S.-China Cooperation: The Great Space Debate

China is stepping up its space program, preparing to launch dozens upon dozens of Earth orbiting satellites over the next five to eight years. Also being readied are several space science missions, fielding a new heavy-lift booster, as well as strengthening its human spaceflight program to include an Earth-circling space lab and initiating a multi-step program of robotic lunar exploration.

Last week, Luo Ge, Vice Administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), detailed his country's space aims in back-to-back addresses, first at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. on April 3, followed by a presentation two days later at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

In his talks, Luo spotlighted China-Russia intergovernmental cooperation, an inter-governmental agreement with France and the European Space Agency, work with Brazil on remote sensing satellites, and noted China's role in the Convention on Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization.

NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin, has confirmed that he has been invited to visit China, although no specific date has been set for the meeting.

How best to work with China is increasingly becoming part of a space policy debate in the United States. The posturing between nations is reminiscent of Cold War discussions with the former Soviet Union. Those talks led to an array of cooperative ventures, from weather data exchanges to the docking detente of Apollo-Soyuz in 1975, setting the stage for working together on the International Space Station project.

Defuse possible tensions

"China civil space plans are ambitious and inevitable," said Joseph Fuller, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer of the Futron Corporation based in Bethesda, Maryland. "It is not a question of if, but when. For the U.S. exploration vision to succeed on a grand scale, it must include China, India, Russia and other space faring nations," he said.

"Substantial collaboration already exists in business and economics," Fuller said, "why not civil space?"

As China expands its automated and human spaceflight abilities, how best should the United States look upon this blossoming work--from a military/civilian perspective? Denying NASA and U.S. space commercial vendors the right to work with China is a political, not a security issue, said James Clay Moltz, Deputy Director, Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Professor of International Policy Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

"Space station technologies are available from other suppliers and are unlikely to lead to any meaningful military advantages," Moltz explained. "On the other hand, forcing China to develop its own space station with Russian or other partners simply sets up a possible competitor where there doesn't need to be one."

Moltz told SPACE.com that cooperating with China would defuse possible tensions, promote cost-savings for NASA, and level the playing field for U.S. companies. The United States should continue to hold China to account for human rights violations and other problems, but not hold space hostage. "It's simply not in U.S. interests," he said.

Elite club of countries

Given success in the human spaceflight arena, Luo of CNSA said that his country intends to orbit its own space lab by 2015. Leading up to this effort, he added, Chinese astronauts are to carry out space walks, with rendezvous and space docking skills also to be demonstrated in coming years.

China carried out its first human space voyage into Earth orbit in October 2003. That less-than-a-day flight catapulted China into an elite club of countries that has this independent space ability, following the former Soviet Union in 1961 and the United States in 1962. Last year, China sent a two-person crew into orbit on a five-day mission, substantially shaking out their Shenzhou spaceship.

During his U.S. travels--including a stopover at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland--Luo said his country will send a first robotic probe to the Moon next year, make a soft-landing of a robotic rover on the Moon in 2012, and conduct an automated lunar sample return effort in 2017.

There was no direct mention by Luo of dispatching a crew to the Moon--or any timetable for such a feat--other than stating that he thought China will also consider the possibility of a manned mission to the Moon.

Lunar desires

"I happen to believe that their goal is to get to the Moon and that their schedule is probably more ambitious than ours is," said former Congressman Robert Walker and now chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates in Washington, D.C.

Walker also chaired the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry and was a member of the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy.

China's lunar desires will be seen by some people as a very direct challenge, Walker said, "but for the Chinese it will simply establish respect for their science and technology programs, which will then allow them, perhaps, to command a bigger price for a lot of their products in the world market."

Walker told SPACE.com that China's growing space prowess is "a very strategic kind of concept for them," adding: "If we are going to be competitive in a world environment we need to respect and do our job of anticipating and responding."

More assurances needed

In terms of working with China on space matters, Walker said there is need for "more assurances" than the U.S. presently has about the Chinese willingness to respect technology, copyrights and patents.

"We have challenges with the Chinese at the present time because the rule of law sometimes means different things to them than it means to us," Walker added. "We're trying to work that out through World Trade Organization arrangements and hopefully some day we will."

Walker said that U.S.-China space cooperation should be very carefully measured. There is need to assure that the United States, he said, doesn't end up giving China technology that challenges, and possibly exceeds, American space expertise.

Leadership in space technology is a very important part of the United States being competitive in the 21st century, Walker said. "We do not want to easily give up the technology that allows us to stay in the lead." 

Most Americans think that the United States is so far ahead in the space arena that no one will ever catch us, Walker concluded. "In my view, that's a mistake to believe that...because there are people with ambitions that rival our own."

A capitalist, poverty-elimination machine

In January, China permitted several U.S. lawmakers to visit the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, an expansive complex that dots the desolate desert of Gansu Province. In 1970, China's first satellite rocketed into Earth orbit from this location. It is also home base for its budding human spaceflight program.

On that first-of-its kind trip, three U.S. Congressmen, Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Florida made the fact-finding journey as members of the U.S. Congress' China Working Group.

Purpose of the group, Feeney told SPACE.com, is to help disconnect a lot of thinking in the U.S. House of Representatives from dated Cold War perspectives. Specifically, that today's China is equivalent of the Soviet Union 40 years ago-a perspective that is "just not true," he said.

"In large parts of their country, the Chinese are a capitalist, poverty-elimination machine," Feeney observed. True, they have a long way to go on property rights and civil rights, and other issues, he said, but the China of today is "a unique situation" among nations around the globe.

The China Working Group wants to look at China as it is today, based on real facts, not--as some people are incorrectly thinking--based on a Cold War vision, Feeney said.

Dramatic rethinking

In visiting the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, Feeney said he was struck by both the remoteness of the locale, as well as how modern their multi-floor rocket vehicle assembly facility was--taking on the appearance of a suburban office building.

Feeney reiterated what other U.S. analysts have expressed. "In the United States, we're training our American aerospace engineers how to maintain 20 to 40 year-old technology. The Chinese are literally developing new technology on their own."

In terms of the United States linking-up with China's space program in pursuing cooperative causes, Feeney advised: "There is a dramatic rethinking in the space community and within NASA about the advantages of working with China."

Legitimate concerns

Some ten to fifteen years ago, China brought no added value to the space cooperation table, Feeney said. But in very short order that has changed, with China making a commitment to space and now have proven capability that demonstrates their technological wherewithal.

"The most immediate thing we ought to agree to in my view is a joint docking device," Feeney pointed out. Having the ability to dock NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to a future Chinese space station should be considered. So too is having a Shenzhou spacecraft capable of attaching to a stranded CEV if need be, he added.

But putting such ideas aside, Feeney said there remains a "big caveat in all of this." There are "very legitimate concerns" raised by the U.S. military, he said, about the ultimate intention of the Chinese.

With newly announced defense budget increases in China, the defense community finds it difficult to talk about sharing technology or capabilities between the two nations, Feeney explained. Furthermore, China's building of a new launch facility to handle heavy-lift rocket operations is worrisome to U.S. space defense officials.

Take home messages

While the heavy-lift Long March booster is key for building a space station, to hone near-Earth and lunar exploration operations, Feeney said the launcher's throw weight can seed space with killer satellites that could "incapacitate America's space communications and space predominance."

"So as we talk about cooperation, we have to think about the really big issues," Feeney noted. "It's one thing to talk about human spaceflight ... rescue of astronauts ... other types of technology generates this concern."

Asked what his take home messages were after viewing, in person, China's space program, Feeney said: "The Chinese have a long way to go to catch us in space capabilities. But they are very focused ... they have had huge success ... and they are very dedicated to being a space leader."