Earlier this year, there was coordination with the Chinese government regarding plans for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to take images of the landing site of Chang’e 4, the robotic spacecraft shown above that China landed on the far side of the moon in January. Credit: CNSA/Xinhua

 Despite the rhetoric of a space race between the United States and China, experts say there are opportunities for the countries to expand cooperation in space that could have broader benefits.

Civil space cooperation between NASA and Chinese organizations is sharply restricted by language commonly known as the Wolf Amendment, first placed in an appropriations bill in 2011 by then-U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) Similar language has been included in subsequent appropriations bills, including the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill enacted in February.

The Wolf Amendment, though, doesn’t bar cooperation between the two countries in civil spaceflight. “A lot of people think that the Wolf Amendment is a prohibition on working with the Chinese. It’s not,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, during a March 29 panel discussion on U.S.-China cooperation by the Secure World Foundation.

The provision, he noted, allows for cooperation if there is certification from the FBI that such efforts don’t pose a national security risk and if Congress has been notified of the plan. “To me, those are two commonsense steps,” he said. That has allowed some limited cooperation in areas like science and aeronautics.

However, many still see the amendment as a barrier to more significant cooperation. “I absolutely agree that the Wolf Amendment does not prohibit cooperation, but the effect of it has been to prohibit it,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation. The restriction, coupled with political rhetoric critical of working with China, has resulted in what he called a “stifling effect” for any plans for enhanced partnerships between the two countries.

Weeden said that restriction should be revisited. “While it’s probably a bridge too far to completely get rid of the Wolf Amendment,” he said, “it’s probably time to think about how to relax it, or at least prescribe areas where we might want to think about having cooperation with China in space.” Doing so, he added, “could lead to benefits for this whole engagement process” between the two countries that go beyond civil space.

This year could provide the best opportunity for modifying or eliminating the amendment. Wolf retired from Congress after the 2014 elections and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who succeeded Wolf as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and who also supported the amendment, lost re-election in 2018 as Democrats regained the majority. House appropriators, though, have yet to bring up the Wolf Amendment as they start planning for fiscal year 2020 spending bills. 

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany, in October, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine showed interest in enhanced cooperation with China, including a meeting with Zhang Kejian, administrator of the China National Space Administration. “I look forward to exploring more opportunities to do that,” he said at the event.

Bridenstine, though, was not nearly as eager when discussing the issue in a media roundtable in February. “I’m not going to close that door,” he said of potential bilateral or multilateral cooperation in space exploration involving China, “but certainly it’s not a door I’m opening wide.”

There has been recent, if limited, cooperation between NASA and China on China’s lunar exploration program. Patrick Besha, senior policy adviser for strategic engagement and assessment at NASA, said at the Secure World Foundation panel there was coordination with the Chinese government regarding plans by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to take high-resolution images of the landing site of the Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon earlier this year.

“It wasn’t a formal agreement,” he said, but that coordination was done within the guidelines laid out by the Wolf Amendment. That cooperation was “reasonably successful,” he said, noting that it was limited to just the Chang’e-4 mission.

“But it’s a start,” added Gold.  

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...