In Shanghai, A Globalization Push for Space Projects

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SHANGHAI — If one day a global space agency saves Earth by deflecting an asteroid or gets every government to share Mars colonization costs, organizers of a science conference in China’s largest city last week said the Shanghai meeting should be remembered for helping make it happen.

Proposals for such major projects rooted in multinational participation were discussed here May 21 and 22 at the Fifth Conference on Advanced Space Technology sponsored by the Paris-based International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and the Chinese Society of Astronautics (CSA).

Sharing resources, tapping the world’s science and engineering talent pool and inspiring young people to pursue space-related careers were key reasons participants cited for expanding international cooperation on every continent.

Multinational initiatives for long-range, expensive tasks such as interplanetary travel, conferees said, would help build bridges between traditional space powers and emerging players such as India. And small countries could get involved in life science experiments aboard space stations. 

Also stressed was that China, which for the past two years has had more orbital rocket launches than the United States, is eager to work closely with foreign space agencies including NASA.

“China is actively cooperating with the rest of the world, and is willing to strengthen international cooperation in astronautics … for peaceful development,” Li Guoping, a deputy secretary-general at the China National Space Administration, told the delegates.

“China’s projects are attracting more attention … so we see increased opportunities for international cooperation,” CSA Vice President Yuan Jie said.

International attendees, however, were vastly outnumbered by their Chinese hosts. The handful of foreigners attending the conference of about 100 people hailed from nine countries, including space powers Russia and France and emerging spacefaring nations Indonesia and Malaysia. 

The tiny U.S. presence included a technical representative from the Defense Department’s Defense Science & Technology Center-Far East, David Scooler, who is based in Japan. Also in the audience was a professor from Colorado, who declined to identify himself to a reporter.

NASA, whose nearly $17 billion space budget dwarfs that of any other space agency, did not send anyone to the three day-meeting.

A Chinese official who asked not to be identified told SpaceNews that China has informally approached NASA about a possible joint Mars landing, with no results so far. 

Joan Johnson-Freese, a national security affairs professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said that is hardly surprising.

“A joint U.S.-Chinese program to Mars is impossible due to Congressional restrictions on NASA regarding working with the Chinese,” Johnson, who did not attend the conference, said via email. “I’m quite sure that the Chinese know that as well, but the offer certainly publicly points out which country is in favor of inclusive cooperation, and which isn’t.

“That NASA hasn’t even responded isn’t surprising either, as a response of any kind could get them investigated by Congress. So the rest of the world can work with the U.S., or China (and most of them do) but not together. The legislative restrictions on NASA largely serve to hurt the U.S. image as a geostrategic leader, and little more.”

Beyond domestic programs, China has launched satellites for Pakistan, Turkey and others, and has worked with Russia since the 1990s. But Sino-Russian cooperation has been in doubt since a joint attempt to deliver China’s first martian probe failed shortly after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2011.

The chief engineer for the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, Chen Jie, told the conference, “We are still talking about whether we can cooperate with Russia on deep-space exploration.” Meanwhile, he said, China is “working on cooperating with” NASA and the European Space Agency.

Jean-Michel Contant, the IAA’s secretary-general, said while NASA’s current space exploration roadmap — visiting a relocated asteroid in the 2020s and sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s — “does not include cooperation with China — that is clear,” the long-range nature of such endeavors means “there is plenty of time for other countries such as China” to forge international initiatives for future Mars missions, as well as work on robotic space exploration and Earth-protecting asteroid deflection.

“Why can’t China prepare a Mars lander?” Contant asked, drawing nods from the Chinese delegates. 

China’s economic growth during the past 20 years has helped the country afford space projects that may be far beyond the reach of most emerging countries. So to bring more countries into the space community, Contant said, IAA is promoting relatively low-cost projects such as robotic exploration.

He called robotic projects “an opening for developing countries” that can win taxpayer and political support in countries where scientists and engineers would be happy to join a global space program.

“We are fully aware that there are many countries not in the loop,” Contant said. “But the world of today is not the 15 countries” that dominate space projects.

IAA is encouraging African countries to expand beyond the satellite programs many have started and form “space life science” programs that would revolve around experiments on orbiting space stations.

Multinational cooperation is also behind IAA’s recent decision to open offices in Brazil, China and India, and schedule a summit of space agency chiefs from up to 45 countries — a record for an academy event — next January in Washington.

Chen called on big countries with strong space programs to work with less-capable but willing nations on deep-space projects, adding that “powerful countries have a duty to cooperate” with others on global projects.

China’s space program — which in 2003 joined the United States and Russia as the third nation to independently launch people into space — has set the pace for accessibility, Chen said. “I think China’s deep-space project is open to the world,” he said. “We would like other countries to cooperate with us in areas such as payloads and spacecraft management.”

Nevertheless, some delegates, citing global economic uncertainty and government austerity in recent years, said future projects based on multinational cooperation will have to put practical value first and scientific quests second.

Meng Guang, vice president of the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, said the Chinese government’s recently installed leadership, headed by President Xi Jinping, wants the space program to focus on improving living conditions for the nation’s people. Only projects with practical applications can expect Beijing’s support, he said.