NASA Chief's Trip to China Sparks Controversy
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, speaks at the 215th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

NASA chief Charles Bolden is preparing to visit Chinese space authorities. But the trip has met opposition from some lawmakers over its intent to continue a dialogue on human spaceflight cooperation between the U.S. and China.

In an earlier exchange with Bolden, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) made it clear he stoutly opposed any partnership with Beijing involving human spaceflight, including efforts to involve China in the International Space Station. Bolden's China trip is set to begin Saturday (Oct. 16).

In an Oct. 8 response to Wolf, Bolden emphasized that the China trip is coordinated closely within the U.S. government "to ensure that agencies and departments with an interest in NASA's activities with China are fully informed and engaged," he said in a letter obtained by SPACE.com.

NASA chief addresses concerns

Bolden emphasized that he has personally met with the leadership of the national security and foreign affairs community in the U.S. to ensure the consistency of these exchanges with U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives.

In his letter to the lawmaker, Bolden pointed out that, on Nov. 17, 2009,  President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a Joint Statement following their summit meeting in Beijing. [U.S, China Explore Space Cooperation]

That joint statement called "for the initiation of a dialogue on human spaceflight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit."

The statement also called for reciprocal visits between an appropriate Chinese counterpart and the NASA administrator in 2010.

China is the third country, after Russia and the United States, to develop and launch spacecraft capable of sending humans into orbit. There have been three Chinese manned spaceflights since 2003 ? the latest in 2008, which included China's first spacewalk, as well as the country's first three-person spaceflight.

In other efforts, China's second unmanned moon probe arrived in lunar orbit last week. The country is also preparing to launch the first segment of a Chinese space station in 2011.

Formal invitation from China

In his letter, Bolden noted that received a formal invitation from the director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office.

He said his travel to China on Oct. 16-21 will include discussions with a number of senior Chinese officials, including officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology, CMSEO, the China National Space Administration, the China Academy of Spaceflight Technology, and the China Academy of Sciences.

?While in China, I have also been invited to conduct site visits to Chinese human spaceflight facilities that were previously not offered to my predecessors,? Bolden explained in the letter.

NASA is also planning, Bolden said, to host a reciprocal introductory visit by Chinese government officials to NASA facilities.

"Any NASA plans to host this Chinese delegation will be guided by the degree of transparency and openness that is displayed during my visit," Bolden said.

Bolden assured Wolf that "under no circumstances will the visits (by Chinese officials) include the conveyance of any non-public technical, operational, strategic or classified information."

No space promises expected

Bolden said that his visit is intended to be "introductory in nature" and will not include consideration of any specific proposals for human spaceflight cooperation or new cooperation in any other area of NASA's activities.

Bolden concluded in his letter that "NASA?s interaction with Chinese entities will be in accordance with existing law and policy, and any specific future opportunities for potential cooperation will be coordinated through interagency review prior to formalization with Chinese partners."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.