Senators Told Road to Mars Leads Through Russia, China

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“We have the safeguards that we can put in place to make sure there are no improper technology transfers,” former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao said. Credit: Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee
“We have the safeguards that we can put in place to make sure there are no improper technology transfers,” former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao said. Credit: Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee screen grab

WASHINGTON — Amid heightened U.S. tensions with Russia and ever-present concerns about the nature and intent of China’s space program, a former space shuttle astronaut and the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the war hero and U.S. president who signed the legislation creating NASA, said cooperation with those countries is key to one day sending human explorers to Mars.

The former astronaut, Leroy Chiao, and Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group Inc. consulting firm, made the recommendations during an April 9 hearing of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee titled “The Road to Mars.”

Chiao and Eisenhower both said that road leads through countries with which the United States has not always had good relations. When it came to China, both the subcommittee chairman, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and ranking member, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), were particularly wary. However, not even Rubio, who took a more hawkish tack in his questioning than Nelson, appeared wholly opposed to the idea of one day opening relations in space with China — one of two nations capable of launching humans into orbit.

“I think in an ideal world we’d want cooperation with China,” Rubio said in a manner that stood out in contrast to that of his House counterparts, who typically recoil at any mention of space cooperation with the People’s Republic.

Nevertheless, Rubio said the Chinese space program is inherently militaristic because it is controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. “It’s certainly true that the Chinese space program is part of the PLA,” said Chiao, a former international space station commander who left NASA in 2005. “I understand the distinction, but functionally, it shouldn’t make that big of a difference, because we’re going to be working on civil space together, and they have a clearly delineated civil space part of their organization.”

Nelson expressed misgivings about working with China, invoking the improper technology transfers that took place in the 1990s when U.S.-made satellites were permitted to launch aboard Chinese rockets.

“There was supposed to be a firewall there so that they couldn’t get our technology, and of course they got it,” Nelson said.

“We have the safeguards that we can put in place to make sure there are no improper technology transfers,” Chiao said. “As far as I know it’s been very successfully controlled in our relationship with the Russians,” he said, adding that he had initially been skeptical of the U.S. decision to greatly expand its human spaceflight partnership with Russia in the early 1990s.

Eisenhower said NASA should immediately be allowed to resume normal communications with Russia, which the agency recently suspended for selected activities. “Since the Cold War ended, U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear security and in space has been at the heart of enhancing the United States’ national security,” she said. “The restrictive measures on space cooperation announced by NASA last week, however, could well threaten our achievements of the last 20 years.”

NASA has exempted several activities from the suspension, most notably the space station. For example, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said April 8 that agency officials will be allowed to attend the 40th Committee on Space Research Scientific Assembly in Moscow Aug. 2-10. Likewise, operation of Russia’s Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, a radiation-detection instrument mounted on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover, will continue.

But NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said other scientific activities with Russia have been put on hold, most notably participation in a joint study for a potential Russian-led Venus mission known as Verera-D.

NASA has also suspended a “meeting about a Siberian boreal forest research campaign, and testing of a small wind tunnel model resembling a modern commercial wide body aircraft in a Russian wind tunnel,” Beutel said in an April 9 email “Suspension of these near-term activities includes all associated NASA travel to Russia, visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences. Our Russian counterparts have been notified,” he added.