Bridenstine and Zhang
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine met with CNSA Administrator Zhang Kejian during the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, Oct. 1. Credit: NASA

BREMEN, Germany — The administrator of NASA and his Chinese counterpart have both expressed interest in working together despite the current constraints in U.S. law regarding bilateral cooperation.

During a panel discussion at the 69th International Astronautical Conference here Oct. 1 featuring the leaders of several space agencies, Zhang Kejian, administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), said China was open to working with a wide range of international partners on projects ranging from lunar exploration to its future space station.

“CNSA is willing to join our hands with other international partners for the benefit of human civilization and progress of human society,” Zhang said, speaking through a translator.

Asked later if that included working with NASA, he said China was “very open” to working with a variety of international partners on lunar exploration. He noted he met with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine earlier in the day. “I had a very good discussion with NASA Administrator Mr. Bridenstine for bilateral cooperation in this particular area,” he said. “I think the response was very positive.”

Bridenstine, appearing on the same panel, noted that there is some cooperation with China today in areas such as aeronautics and Earth science. That cooperation takes place despite the presence of language in appropriations laws colloquially known as the Wolf Amendment, after former Rep. Frank Wolf, who first included it in spending bills several years ago. That provision prohibits bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese agencies without prior congressional approval.

“We do cooperate in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean our interests are always aligned,” he said. “Some of these decisions are going to be made above the pay grade of the NASA administrator.”

“To the extent that agencies and countries from around the world can cooperate on space, it is absolutely in our interest to do so,” he added. “I look forward to exploring more opportunities to do that.”

“I believe that the working teams of both sides can start preparation of a cooperation list,” Zhang responded. “We can dash out those that cannot be implemented now, or are above our pay grade, and then we can start cooperating on the substantial part.” That included, he added, exchange of scientific data and space situational awareness information.

At a press conference held after the panel, Bridenstine agreed that a greater sharing of data was one area of potential enhanced cooperation with China. “They’re doing some amazing scientific experiments,” he said, citing as an example China’s upcoming Chang’e-4 mission that will attempt the first landing on the far side of the moon. “We can share data and collaborate that way so that each country can learn more about science.”

He also agreed that sharing space situational awareness and space traffic management information may be another area of cooperation. “There is no issue related to space more important to for all of us to get right than that issue,” he said. “We need to preserve the space environment for generations to come. The only way we’re going to be able to do that internationally is to collaborate.”

Those initiatives, he suggested, could open the door to more ambitious joint efforts. “This could be the first confidence-building measure that is necessary to establish the kind of relationship that is necessary to go to the next step,” he said.

Bridenstine added, though, that was unlikely that the Wolf Amendment, renewed on an annual basis through new spending bills, would go away in the near future, thus creating barriers to closer cooperation. “If there comes a day when we can cooperate, that provision would simply expire and we would be able to cooperate,” he said.

And when could that happen? “That would be up to the United States Congress based on the information they’re seeing and the intelligence that they receive.”

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...