NASA has asked the China National Space Administration (CNSA) to take part next week in an invitation-only Exploration Strategy Workshop to be held in Washington, D.C.

The confab is seen by NASA as the first step in a series of activities planned for 2006 that will focus on defining a global space exploration strategy for robotic and human lunar exploration, including the role of the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars and other destinations. This event will bring together representatives from a broad range of communities to work in multidisciplinary teams, exchanging ideas on the strategy for exploration.

The workshop is an outgrowth from President George W. Bush's visionary agenda unveiled in January 2004 of Moon, Mars, and beyond exploration goals that he tasked NASA to undertake.

"Consistent with the Vision's mandate to pursue international cooperation, we are hosting 13 international space agencies, including China's, next week at an exploration workshop," said Melissa Mathews, NASA public affairs spokesperson for the space agency's Office of External Relations.

NASA chief, Mike Griffin, was invited to visit China earlier this month by the China National Space Administration, Mathews said, and NASA is considering the invitation. "As for dates, there's nothing more specific than 'fall' to report to you at this point," she told SPACE.com.

Regarding where things stand today in terms of NASA's cooperation with China, Mathews said: "Generally speaking, NASA is constrained in its ability to discuss new civil space cooperation with China until China addresses issues of concern to the U.S. government. Our current involvement with China is limited and consists of such things as low-level Earth science exchanges of data. There is no human spaceflight-related cooperation under consideration at this time."

Cooperative agreements

Today, Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington, D.C. and is meeting with President George Bush in the White House Oval Office.

As a prelude to President Hu's visit the United States and the People's Republic of China signed a protocol on April 18 that extends for five years a number of bilateral science and technology cooperative agreements.

The protocol agreement was signed earlier this week by John Marburger, Science Advisor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and China's Minister of Science and Technology Xu Guanhua. 

"The extension enables the continuation of the ongoing exchange of scientific and technical knowledge, the pursuit of advanced and applied scientific and technical projects, and the augmentation of scientific and technical," according to a U.S. State Department fact sheet. Areas identified for continued and potential future cooperation include:

  • Fisheries;
  • Emerging and infectious diseases (such as avian influenza, and HIV/AIDS);
  • Earth and atmospheric sciences;
  • Basic research in physics, chemistry, and agriculture;
  • A variety of energy-related areas;
  • Geology;
  • Health;
  • Civil industrial technology; and
  • Disaster research.

Roster of space projects

While how many of these areas may benefit by increased U.S.-China space cooperation is unclear, China does have in the works an impressive roster of satellite projects.

Luo Ge, Vice Administrator, China National Space Administration (CNSA) noted at the recent 22nd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado his country in the coming five to eight years we will be launching about 100 satellites, including meteorological, Earth remote sensing, as well as constellations of Earth observing and disaster mitigation spacecraft.

Luo also spotlighted China's multi-step program for lunar exploration that is kick started next year by that country's first lunar orbiter mission By 2012, he said, China space planners will be landing a rover on the Moon surface. And in 2017, the lunar exploration plans call for robotic lunar sample return.

Regarding the opening of a window in U.S./China space cooperation, there are indications, slight they may be, of a potential--yet small--change in policy, said a leading China space watcher, Joan Johnson-Freese, Chair, Department of National Security Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

"I am cautiously optimistic, which is more optimistic than I've been in the past," Johnson-Freese told SPACE.com in an earlier interview.

Security dilemma

U.S.-China space relations are a classic security dilemma, where two states are drawn toward conflict though neither really wants that, Johnson-Freese explained. The reasons are fairly straightforward and strongly influenced by the technology involved, Johnson-Freese suggested.

"Specifically, there is no distinction between space technology for civil or military use, since 95 percent of space technology is dual-use, and further--and really problematic--there is often little or no distinction between military technology that is offensive or defensive in nature," Johnson-Freese explained. "So, fear of being exploited drives countries to view actions of others in zero-sum terms."

All this is further exacerbated when there is a predisposition by one state to view the other as an adversary ... or even a "potential" adversary. While strategically the U.S. talks about working with China, there are still other voices that talk about China as a potential near-peer competitor, due to Taiwan, the growth of their military, resource competition, and other issues of alarm, Johnson-Freese explained. All that said, she added: "It is very likely that the lens through which the U.S.--as the currently dominate space power--will view any expansion of Chinese space power will be a military one."

Security dilemmas, Johnson-Freese remarked, are by their nature difficult to deal with, but not impossible. A recent visit of the bi-partisan Congressional delegation to China and talks about potential space cooperation in areas like astronaut rescue and environmental monitoring, was a good sign, she said.

However, a change of policy to include cooperative space activities is still a White House call, Johnson-Freese said. A first step on this path, she counseled, is simply understanding the Chinese better and allowing them to know us better through dialogue.