NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) meets with Xu Dazhe, director of the China National Space Administration. Credit: CAST

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Dec. 3 that he met with his Chinese counterparts during a previously unpublicized visit to China in November, discussing cooperation in the areas of Earth sciences and aeronautics.

“We heard their story,” Bolden said. “It was mainly a listening opportunity.”

Bolden did not go into detail about the substance of the talks. He noted they took place after a meeting Nov. 9-10 of the International Forum for Aviation Research in Zhuhai, China, chaired by Jaiwon Shin, NASA associate administrator for aeronautics.

“It was an opportunity for me to get an outbrief from that,” Bolden said, emphasizing the importance of working with China and other nations in the field of air traffic management. “It was an opportunity for us to let them know that we’re very much interested in that.”

NASA had not previously disclosed Bolden’s visit to China. A statement on the Chinese-language website of China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, dated Nov. 15, noted the meeting between Bolden and Xu Dazhe, director of the China National Space Administration, or CNSA.

That statement said there was a “frank exchange of views” between Bolden and Xu and the two “agreed to strengthen communications and exchanges” between the nations, but did not go into detail about the topics they discussed. NASA spokesman David Weaver confirmed Dec. 2 that the meeting took place.

In October, Aerospace Daily reported that Bolden would be traveling to China to meet officials there, likely in conjunction with the aviation conference. Bolden’s visit was part of a larger overseas trip that also included meetings with Japanese officials Nov. 16 and 17.

Any meeting between NASA and Chinese officials would be subject to political scrutiny. Since 2011, provisions in appropriations bills funding NASA have prohibited bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese agencies. The provision in the 2014 bill includes an exception that allows interactions with Chinese officials that the agency has certified are not known “to have direct involvement with violations of human rights.”

That prohibition was largely the effort of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that funds NASA, who has frequently expressed concerns about human rights abuses by the Chinese government. Wolf is retiring from Congress at the end of this year, but his successor as subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), also has been critical of cooperation with China.

In a Dec. 4 email, Daniel Scandling, a spokesman for Wolf, said NASA informed lawmakers about Bolden’s travel plans before the administrator left for China.

Bolden said the Chinese officials he met with were aware of the political constraints in the United States on cooperation with China. “They understand the situation we’re in,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...