Saturday, November 20, 2010

China and NASA: Incredible Potential

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden receives a model from China's Manned Space Engineering Office Director Wang Wenbao. Photo source: Space News.

The Space Politics web site has a summary of comments made by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at Marshall Space Flight Center on November 16. It cites a transcript of the event posted on the Space News web site.

Bolden covered a number of subjects, but in particular I was interested in his comments about his recent trip to meet with the leaders of the Chinese space program.

I recently came back from a trip to China. I spent a whole week over there with Bill Gerstenmeyer and Peggy Whitson, the Chief of the Astronaut office. We got an opportunity to see everything. Everything that we asked for plus some more.

We started out in Beijing at most of their facilities where they produced the Long March, which is their big rocket where their Astronaut Training Center is. We went out into the Gobi Desert some distance away, a long ways away from Beijing where their launch site is, where they do all the _______ launches, their human space program, and also most of their military satellites.

So it's a different environment than what we're accustomed to. The people's army runs everything. That's just the way it is. They are struggling right now with how they split up responsibility for programs.

My opinion is they really want to be a member of the, what I call the society of space faring nations. I went there with three principles and I repeated them over and over and over again everywhere I went, and that was if they were going to do anything with us, and we went there to listen. We didn't go to propose or to make any deals or anything. We went to listen. But I told them that if anything was going to come from a relationship between the United States and China in space, then they would have to demonstrate to us that they could be transparent in all dealings, that they would have to demonstrate that they were willing to exercise reciprocity which means they give us something, we give them something and we go back and forth. And then the third thing is they had to be mutually beneficial to both nations. If we didn't get anything out of it, we weren't interested. We felt that they were the same way.

And I will tell you one thing. My final night there, I met with the big head of their human space flight program who ironically is also head of their anti-satellite program. An odd mix of responsibility. He is a Three-Star, a lieutenant general in the People's Liberation Army Air Force or something. And he started out the conversation. He introduced the conversation and he said they're going to be very candid. We don't need you. We don't need the United States, and you don't need us. But the potential, if we choose to work together, is incredible.

I thought that spoke volumes. Very, very candid. And they don't. They don't need us, and we don't need them. But I happen to be one who kind of every once in a while just wonders about what things could be like if we were able to bring more countries into the partnership. It’s going to be difficult and it will take years, but we may get there sometime.

The Space News analysis of Bolden's remarks about his China trip noted:

In October, Bolden led a U.S. delegation to China for high-level talks with Chinese space officials on human spaceflight cooperation, provoking an outcry from Republican lawmakers concerned any collaboration between NASA and China’s military-led space program would jeopardize U.S. national security. U.S. Reps. Frank Wolf of Virginia and John Culberson of Texas — both members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that approves NASA’s annual budgets — wrote Bolden on the eve of his departure stating their opposition to the NASA chief leading talks with Chinese officials about manned spaceflight programs. They also asked for a briefing upon Bolden’s return.

Culberson introduced legislation last June that would have forbidden cooperation between the U.S. and China in space unless approved by Congress. His proposal was defeated in committee.

It seems to me that the last eighteen years of space cooperation with Russia would be persuasive evidence that it's a lot smarter to collaborate with a rival than deliberately provoke another Cold War.

During the administration of the first President Bush, the United States and Russia signed the Joint Statement on Cooperation in Space in June 1992. American astronauts have been flying on Soyuz craft since Norm Thagard flew to Mir in March 1995. Thanks to the agreement, not only did Russia share the cost of building the International Space Station but we had redundant access to the facility when the Shuttle program was stopped after the Columbia accident.

Some may complain that Russia charges the U.S. $51 million per astronaut for a Soyuz ride to the ISS, but we're the ones who created the Russian monopoly by failing to plug the gap between Shuttle and whatever comes next. That gap was created in January 2004 when the second President Bush cancelled the Shuttle program. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, which evolved into Constellation, called for Shuttle's retirement in 2010 and reliance upon Soyuz until a replacement was ready, no earlier than 2014.

If something bad happens with Soyuz until an American option is ready, then we'll have no way to reach ISS.

In my opinion, the more the merrier. If China or India or the European Space Agency want to develop their own vehicle for access to Low Earth Orbit, they should be welcomed.

History has shown us that no one nation can sustain indefinitely the costs of a robust unilateral space program. Although China is studying a possible Moon rocket, their immediate priority is a space station, and so far all they've done is replicate a Gemini flight with two taikonauts. China may have a robust economy, but I think in the long run the costs of accessing space will force China to participate in the ISS project and perhaps one day a multinational mission to the Moon.

China's willingness to show Bolden everything may suggest that they've come to the realization they can't afford to go it alone either.

1 comment:

  1. It's a simple yet perplexing equation:

    human spaceflight = politics

    It will be interesting to see how international politics will lead the spaceflight programs of the leading countries in spaceflight.