UPDATE: Story first posted at 8:01 p.m. EDT on 9/23/06

Top officials from NASA and China are meeting this week to gauge the prospects for potential partnerships in future space endeavors.

NASA chief, Mike Griffin, leads space agency discussions with a number of high-ranking space officials in China during a September 23-28 trip that includes stops in Beijing and Shanghai.

During his travels, Griffin will tour a number of aerospace facilities--the first time a NASA administrator has journeyed to the country.

Along with Griffin, the senior NASA officials accompanying him to China include Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier, Assistant Administrator for External Relations Michael O'Brien and NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid.

Respectful tones

Griffin should listen closely to China's space officials, taking in what they say they can do...and want to do. That's the advice of Roger Handberg, Professor and Chair/College of Sciences Prelaw Advisor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

"Politically, China wants to be an international space player and the U.S. is in the position of having to graciously accept them. Otherwise, the U.S. will become more isolated since China is building its ties to other space players," said Handberg.

"Rejecting China out of hand is likely a mistake," Handberg said, as cooperation in space is in fact easier than cooperation in other spheres. "Speaking publicly in respectful tones is an easy item and it opens the doors to possible future cooperation," Handberg suggested. "For Griffin, the visit is an opportunity to do what NASA is supposed to do...build international cooperation with others."

Official itinerary

At the moment, Griffin's official itinerary includes meeting with Laiyan Sun, the administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), a visit to the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST), meeting with officials at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Center for Space Science and Applied Research, as well as meeting with the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology.

Additional stopovers include Griffin giving speaking before the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a tour of China's National Satellite Meteorological Center.

Earlier this month, at an annual CAST conference, space planners in China unveiled details on future studies of comets and asteroids, adding these targets to an expanding agenda of spacecraft research goals.

Two-way dialogue

In a background briefing before departing for China, a NASA senior advisor made clear that the space agency's sojourn to China is a get-acquainted affair. Both sides are out to identify areas of mutual interest to discuss.

"I'm sure it will be a two-way dialogue," the NASA senior advisor explained.

On the travel tour, at NASA's request, was an expected visit to China's Jiuquan launch site - departure site for crew-carrying Shenzhou missions. However, SPACE.com has learned that the trip to the complex did not work out, with the NASA delegation traveling straight from Beijing to Shanghai.

One potential talking point is China's multi-step robotic lunar exploration program-given the launch next year of that country's first Moon orbiter.

China's involvement in the International Space Station hasn't been ruled out, although the NASA senior advisor said that a particular role for the Chinese in ISS is not clear at the moment.

The NASA senior advisor told SPACE.com that this opening set of talks could mirror early one-to-one meetings decades ago between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union--conversations that led to the joint docking of the Apollo/Soyuz, shuttle flights to the Russian Mir space station, as well as the partnership now at work today in building and operating the International Space Station.