Griffin to Go to China: But What Will He Accomplish When He Gets There?

NASAchief, 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 planlists meetings and tours starting September 24 and he will leave on the 28th,making stops in Beijing and Shanghai.

China has a notablearray of active and future space ventures--from weather watching to Earthremote sensing, including a robotic, multi-phase lunar exploration agenda. Itis 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 areforecasting the fielding of their own space station too.

Inan interview with Griffin last month, the NASA chief told thathe is not setting expectations, calling it "a get acquainted visit"--with nopreconditions set on either side.

Griffin said that duringthe 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 Bushaccepted that invitation, so the plan is that I will go. I'm looking forward toit," he said.

Expectationsand cordialities aside, asked policy and China specialists to gauge the meaning of Griffin's trip, political baggage carried, and possibleimplications for Sino-American space alliances.


Theissue of U.S.-China space cooperation has long been of interest to BrettAlexander, Vice President for Government Relations of Transformational SpaceCorporation in Reston, Virginia.

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

China has wanted toengage the U.S. government and NASA in establishing space partnerships for manyyears, 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.-Chinaissues, 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 spacecooperation, he said.

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

First step: dialogue

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

Alexanderis of the opinion that the real geopolitical goal should be to sway the Chinesepeople's opinion of the U.S. and its intentions.

"Nothingcould have a greater positive effect than a Chinese taikonaut on a shuttle orvisiting the International Space Station. That would be huge publicrelations...and an important step forward in U.S-China bilateral relationship,"Alexander suggested.

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

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

About politics, not technology

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

"Theyare fond of comparing today's space program to China's efforts to developnuclear weapons and satellites in the 1960s and 70s," Kulacki said. Thatcontrast, he added, is often misinterpreted by U.S. commentators as anindication that China's space program is military or confrontational in nature.

"Thecomparison is meant to communicate an equality in the level of technicaldifficulty and its significance for Chinese science and engineering. Moreimportantly, it signifies that China's space program, like their nuclearprogram, succeeded despite constraints that scientistsin other nations would find hard to overcome."

Chineseofficials hope the Griffin visit "is an indication that they will be allowed toengage in scientific exchanges with their American colleagues free of the fearthat either side will be persecuted by American politicians who often don'tunderstand the substance or purpose of those exchanges," Kulacki said via emailfrom China.

Noone in China, Kulacki continued, especially their scientists and engineers,would fault the United States for protecting the cutting edges of its technological advantagesin space for military or even commercial purposes. "What bothers Chineseleaders, Chinese scientists, and the Chinese public is that the broadrestrictions imposed by the U.S. government, which, among other things, forbidall bilateral contact between NASA personnel and their counterparts in China,seem to be about politics, not technology."

China can't be ignored

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

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

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

Sabathieralso suggested that the gap between end of shuttle flights and takeoffs of thestill-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 theRussians, or do you take advantage of the Chinese capability. That's a bigquestion."

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."

Itis time to rebuild contact and dialogue with China, Sabathier advised, "keepingin mind that space cooperation--especially in human spaceflight--could bringforeign relation benefits."

Spaceis both visible and prestigious "and would go a long way in starting a verypragmatic 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 asignificant result from this visit, but it can keep the dialogue open. Therewill be need to clear the road at policy levels first."

Build trust

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

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

"Ithink the goal of Mike Griffin's initial trip to China should be to getacquainted both with Chinese space leaders and Chinese space capabilities, andoffer some initial ideas for cooperation that can build trust between the twocountries' space efforts," Logsdon advised.

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

Country-to-country interaction

"Thevisit 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 theNational Security Decision Making Department at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

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

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

Explore areas of joint interest

"Thisvisit will likely not focus on discussion of specifics programs oropportunities to work together, but more generally explore areas of jointinterest and allow both countries to begin to understand how the other works,"Johnson-Freese predicted.

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

"Whathappens after that will largely be determined by whether the Chinese arewilling 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 theyperceive Griffin's attitude toward indicative of both NASA and the U.S. generally. They are looking for respect. I am actually relatively optimistic as Ithink 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 personto go to Beijing," Johnson-Freese concluded.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.