One small step for U.S.-China space cooperation

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This article originally appeared in the June 19, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Collaboration between China and the United States in space is difficult. Federal law prohibits NASA from bilateral cooperation with China unless the agency first receives congressional approval. Export control restrictions prevent U.S. companies from selling hardware to Chinese companies, or launching satellites on Chinese rockets.

One initiative, though, could open the door for greater cooperation between the two space powers, eventually. One of the payloads delivered to the International Space Station on a Dragon cargo spacecraft in early June was an experiment developed by Deng Yulin, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology in China. The experiment will test the effects of the space radiation environment on DNA.

The experiment was one of more than 25 brought to the station by NanoRacks, the Houston-based company whose services include delivering and operating experiments on the ISS. What made the experiment stand out was not so much its science or technology but that it was the first Chinese-built experiment to go to the station.

Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, said the decision to fly the payload was based on business, not politics. “Why are we working with China? Because they’re  in space,” he said during an event in New York June 5, the same day the Dragon berthed to the station.

The experiment flew once before on a Chinese mission, Manber said, with an abnormality detected in the DNA. “We don’t know yet if it’s due to the microgravity or the radiation,” he said, hence the desire by Deng to fly it again, this time on the ISS.

The experiment was able to navigate a narrow path to overcome legal obstacles to U.S.-China space cooperation. Because the agreement is with NanoRacks, and not NASA, it does not violate existing limitations on bilateral cooperation between NASA and China. Moreover, since the experiment is imported to the United States, it does not run afoul of export control restrictions.

The company, in a June 5 statement, emphasized that the experiment will remain installed on a NanoRacks platform inside the station, with no access to NASA or other ISS systems. There is, NanoRacks added, no transfer of technology between NASA and China. NanoRacks also worked with NASA to ensure there were no issues flying the experiment.

“For us, it’s not about a political statement, but that we now have another unique international customer,” Manber said in that statement.

While the flight of that experiment may not have had geopolitical motivations, it might yet have geopolitical implications. In the U.S., the experiment got very little attention until after its launch. However, in China, it was major news, where it was seen as a milestone. “This is a new model of cooperation that we can follow in the future,” Deng told the state-run Xinhua news agency.

If a Chinese experiment can fly on the ISS, how else could the United States and China cooperate in space? For now, there are no signs of major changes in current U.S. policy, but it’s clear the issue cannot be ignored, especially as China’s spaceflight capabilities grow.

“They’re very active,” NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said at a June 8 hearing of the House Science Committee, when asked about Chinese space capabilities. “For us, we have to decide at some point what’s going to be our interaction with them.”

Manber has his own ideas of how he would like to work with the Chinese in the future. “They have a space station as well,” he said, “and I’m going to work as hard as I can to make it international.”