NASA administrator Michael Griffin said Tuesday that he will visit China and open up a dialogue with the country's national space agency.
"The Chinese have offered an opportunity for me to visit with them and discuss the beginnings of a cooperation between us...in space," Griffin told a Senate subcommittee on science and space, during a Tuesday hearing in Washington, D.C. "The President has advised me to accept that decision, I'm looking forward to it."
Top officials with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) invited Griffin to their country earlier this month. NASA officials said then that U.S. space agency chief was considering the invite, which came from CNSA vice administrator Luo Ge.
While a formal date for the trip has yet to be disclosed, NASA officials have said it could occur this fall.
Griffin's Tuesday remarks came after an informal visit to NASA's Washington, D.C. headquarters by Chinese space agency officials this month, as well as the recent U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao. Hu met with U.S. President George W. Bush during that visit.
NASA also invited CNSA officials to an invite-only Exploration Strategy Workshop held Washington, D.C. this week. The workshop ends Friday.
"China is, as we are, a great nation," Griffin said Tuesday. "They are not consonant with us on many things that we would like them to be more closely aligned, and some of those things were discussed."
Griffin added that the U.S. needs both good partners and competitors in space exploration, and sometimes they can be wrapped in the same entity.
"I think the United States has always benefited from discussions," Griffin said of China's invitation. "I do not see how it can hurt us."
China is the third country to launch astronauts into space following Russia and the U.S. The nation's first manned spaceflight, Shenzhou 5, launched in October 2003 with Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei aboard. A subsequent two-person launch shot into space in October 2005 during the country's Shenzhou 6 mission.
Shenzhou 7, which is expected to feature China's first spacewalk, is currently slated to launch three astronauts into orbit by 2008.
"I would say that 20 years ago, who would have imagined that one of our best friends on the space station today is Russia," Griffin said, referring to the Cold War between the U.S. and then Soviet Union. "It's in our best interests to behave as if cooperation is always a possible thing, and I believe that's what we're doing."