WASHINGTON — U.S.-Chinese cooperation in human spaceflight, while not necessary for either country to succeed in its endeavors, could yield mutually beneficial results, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
“They don’t need us, and we don’t need them,” Bolden said Nov. 16 during an all-hands address at one of the agency’s main manned spaceflight facilities, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. ”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.”
Bolden’s address was closed to reporters, but a transcript of the event was obtained by Space News.
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 serving on 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.
Although the NASA chief issued a public statement following the visit, he has yet to share details of the trip with lawmakers. But during his remarks at Marshall, Bolden shed some light on the visit, which he said afforded an opportunity “to see everything — everything we asked for, plus some more,” according to the transcript.
Bolden said his delegation included Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, and Peggy Whitson, chief of the agency’s astronaut office, both of whom joined him for a tour of China’s Long March rocket production facility and the China National Space Administration’s astronaut training center in Beijing. The group also traveled to the Gobi Desert to see launch facilities that support China’s human spaceflight and military satellite programs.
“So it’s a different environment than what we’re accustomed to. The People’s [Liberation] Army runs everything. That’s just the way it is,” Bolden said, adding that China is “struggling right now with how they split up responsibility for programs.”
He said that on his final night in the communist country he met with China’s top human spaceflight official, a three-star general “who ironically is also head of their anti-satellite program. An odd mix of responsibility.”
Bolden said the two had a frank discussion of the merits of bilateral cooperation in space in which the official, whom he did not identify by name, said the potential to work together is “incredible” but that the United States and China do not need each other.
“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,’” Bolden said.
He said the meeting did not involve discussion of any specific manned spaceflight proposals.
“We didn’t go to propose or to make any deals or anything. We went to listen,” he said. “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.”
Still, Bolden said he thinks the Chinese are eager to cooperate with other spacefaring nations.
“It’s going to be difficult and it will take years, but we may get there sometime,” he said.
Transcript of Bolden’s Nov. 16 Marshall all-hands address