NASA chief, Mike Griffin, is preparing for his first-hand look at China's growing space program--a visit slated for month's end.

Griffin's travel plan lists meetings and tours starting September 24 and he will leave on the 28th, making stops in Beijing and Shanghai.

China has a notable array of active and future space ventures--from weather watching to Earth remote sensing, including a robotic, multi-phase lunar exploration agenda. It is also a member of an elite club of countries able to hurl crews--taikonauts--into Earth orbit via Shenzhou spacecraft. The country's space leaders are forecasting the fielding of their own space station too.

In an interview with Griffin last month, the NASA chief told SPACE.com that he is not setting expectations, calling it "a get acquainted visit"--with no preconditions set on either side.

Griffin said that during the April visit of China's President Hu Jintao to the United States, an invite was extended to Griffin to tour China's space facilities. "President Bush accepted that invitation, so the plan is that I will go. I'm looking forward to it," he said.

Expectations and cordialities aside, SPACE.com asked policy and China specialists to gauge the meaning of Griffin's trip, political baggage carried, and possible implications for Sino-American space alliances.

Miscommunication

The issue of U.S.-China space cooperation has long been of interest to Brett Alexander, Vice President for Government Relations of Transformational Space Corporation in Reston, Virginia.

In a previous job, Alexander worked for five years as the Senior Policy Analyst for space issues in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where he served both Presidents Bush and Clinton.

China has wanted to engage the U.S. government and NASA in establishing space partnerships for many years, Alexander said. A number of topics helped defer such talk, he added, such as U.S. insistence on nonproliferation, as well as other U.S.-China issues, such as human rights and trade. Chinese space officials misinterpreted U.S. concerns in these areas as merely an excuse not to open a dialogue on space cooperation, he said.

"So, there's been miscommunication for some time," Alexander said.

First step: dialogue

"I think that the first step in any dialogue will be to get to know each other's perspectives, goals, and interests for cooperation prior to any real discussion of cooperative activities," Alexander observed. "This should clear up the miscommunication so that progress can be made on the issues that still stand in the way - such as nonproliferation, because that hasn't gone away."

Alexander is of the opinion that the real geopolitical goal should be to sway the Chinese people's opinion of the U.S. and its intentions.

"Nothing could have a greater positive effect than a Chinese taikonaut on a shuttle or visiting the International Space Station. That would be huge public relations...and an important step forward in U.S-China bilateral relationship," Alexander suggested.

But such a go-ahead is, however, well above Griffin's pay grade.

"That type of cooperation, of course, can only be part of a Presidential initiative and won't happen anytime soon. But this visit is a first step," Alexander concluded.

About politics, not technology

"Chinese scientists and engineers are proud of their accomplishments, especially given the political chaos and economic hardships they endured throughout their careers," explained Gregory Kulacki, Senior Analyst and China Project Manager in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"They are fond of comparing today's space program to China's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and satellites in the 1960s and 70s," Kulacki said. That contrast, he added, is often misinterpreted by U.S. commentators as an indication that China's space program is military or confrontational in nature.

"The comparison is meant to communicate an equality in the level of technical difficulty and its significance for Chinese science and engineering. More importantly, it signifies that China's space program, like their nuclear program, succeeded despite constraints that scientists in other nations would find hard to overcome."

Chinese officials hope the Griffin visit "is an indication that they will be allowed to engage in scientific exchanges with their American colleagues free of the fear that either side will be persecuted by American politicians who often don't understand the substance or purpose of those exchanges," Kulacki said via email from China.

No one in China, Kulacki continued, especially their scientists and engineers, would fault the United States for protecting the cutting edges of its technological advantages in space for military or even commercial purposes. "What bothers Chinese leaders, Chinese scientists, and the Chinese public is that the broad restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, which, among other things, forbid all bilateral contact between NASA personnel and their counterparts in China, seem to be about politics, not technology."

China can't be ignored

China has a long-term vision, including establishing a space station and fulfilling a step by step robotic lunar exploration program, said Vincent Sabathier, Senior Fellow and Director of Space Initiatives at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

"They are advancing whether or not the U.S. or others are teaming with them," Sabathier said.

"The rest of the world is cooperating in space with China," Sabathier said, stressing the fact that China has more than 50 projects in space cooperation with Russia alone. Furthermore, he added, it's worth noting that China could latch up with the International Space Station - courtesy of a ready and willing docking port on the Russian segment of the orbiting outpost.

Sabathier also suggested that the gap between end of shuttle flights and takeoffs of the still-to-be-built NASA Crew Exploration Vehicle might be filled by visits of China's Shenzhou spacecraft to the International Space Station. "Do you rely solely on the Russians, or do you take advantage of the Chinese capability. That's a big question."

Foreign relations

Sabathier said that in the human spaceflight field, there are many reasons for the U.S. to cooperate with China. "You cannot ignore them anymore."

It is time to rebuild contact and dialogue with China, Sabathier advised, "keeping in mind that space cooperation--especially in human spaceflight--could bring foreign relation benefits."

Space is both visible and prestigious "and would go a long way in starting a very pragmatic and useful dialogue with China," Sabathier said.

Griffin's trek to China is a good move, Sabathier stated, to reestablish contact. "We will not see a significant result from this visit, but it can keep the dialogue open. There will be need to clear the road at policy levels first."

Build trust

China is clearly positioning itself to take a seat at the head table of spacefaring countries, noted John Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute within the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

As the leading space power, Logsdon added, it is in the U.S. interest to welcome China into the "space club".

"I think the goal of Mike Griffin's initial trip to China should be to get acquainted both with Chinese space leaders and Chinese space capabilities, and offer some initial ideas for cooperation that can build trust between the two countries' space efforts," Logsdon advised.

"Becoming partners in space exploration will take time," Logsdon said, "but Griffin certainly should take the first steps in that direction."

Country-to-country interaction

"The visit signals, I think, a new potential to include cooperation into U.S. policy options for working with China in space," said Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the National Security Decision Making Department at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Space relations between the two space powers have long been held hostage to or a subset of U.S.-China relations generally, as well as partisan politics, Johnson-Freese observed.

With country-to-country interaction by and large better than it has been in some time, the partisan politics aspect has been somewhat muted, Johnson-Freese said, "so the time appears right, or at least allowable, to explore the idea of improving U.S.-China space relations." And while the U.S. has viewed relations as competitive and threatening, "China is cooperating on space activities with most other space-faring nations," she pointed out.

Explore areas of joint interest

"This visit will likely not focus on discussion of specifics programs or opportunities to work together, but more generally explore areas of joint interest and allow both countries to begin to understand how the other works," Johnson-Freese predicted.

Griffin's "getting to know you" type visit is viewed as an important first step.

"What happens after that will largely be determined by whether the Chinese are willing to become more transparent about what they are doing in space and why," Johnson-Freese said. "And that will at least partly be determined by how they perceive Griffin's attitude toward them...as indicative of both NASA and the U.S. generally. They are looking for respect. I am actually relatively optimistic as I think Griffin is a person who can do this right."

Given Griffin's experience with international space relations, use of policy tools, as well as being well-versed in space security issues, "he is the right person to go to Beijing," Johnson-Freese concluded.