With China on the rise, a pivotal spaceflight moment approaches

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This article appeared in the July 17, 2017 issue of SpaceNews Magazine. 

When U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke July 6 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to mark the reestablishment of the National Space Council, he stressed the importance of U.S. leadership in space. Details as how this leadership will look, and which actors will be involved, were not stated.

With the International Space Station expected to be decommissioned a decade from now, major decisions are needed on matters of the moon and Mars as potential destinations, the role of commercial space actors, and more.

Arguably, one of the decisions with the most profound effects on U.S. space leadership and the future of global human spaceflight efforts will concern the international partners America chooses.

Much has changed since the Space Station Freedom of the Reagan years evolved by the early 1990s into the International Space Station. While Russia seems to have lowered its ambitions and lost some measure of its space sector capabilities since the end of the Cold War, a new long-term player has emerged amid similarly fraught relations.

In 1993, the year before Russia’s formal acceptance into the ISS program, China initiated its own human spaceflight program. Named Project 921, it set out to develop a human spaceflight capabilities with the ultimate goal of constructing a large, modular space station in low Earth orbit.

Since Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national in space in 2003, two Tiangong space labs have received crews and tested rendezvous and docking, life support, maintenance and repair and other required technologies.

The country’s steady progress up to now suggests the July 2 failure of the second Long March 5 rocket — the 5B variant of which will launch the 20 metric ton space station modules — will likely be a blip on the path to completing the project.

A major international space project including China may look very different to one that sees it excluded once more, with implications for all.

Risks, rewards and roadblocks

NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are for now effectively prohibited from bilateral relations with China by law. But John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University, says the U.S. could suffer significant losses by keeping China frozen out.

“I think the U.S. risks, at a minimum, shared leadership for the future. It risks needing to spend a fair amount of its resources to stay competitive with whatever China chooses to do. And it loses the benefits of international collaboration in a high-visibility area,” Logsdon told SpaceNews.

Li Bin, professor at Tsinghua University and a senior fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said he believes there is a big chance to have win-win cooperation between the U.S. and China.

“China can contribute to the global efforts in civilian space development by expressing its enthusiasm in space exploration, developing new space technologies, investing on space activities, and joining negotiations on space norms,” Li said.

China has its reasons for pursuing such cooperation, yet it remains to be seen how far the emerging space power is willing to go to achieve this.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, expressing her personal views, told SpaceNews that, for Beijing, the politics of cooperation with NASA are especially important.

“The ISS, for example, has been considered a project involving the “international family of spacefaring nations” and China very much wants to be considered as a member of that family. Being involved would symbolically indicate China — and the Chinese government — as accepted by that family,” Johnson-Freese said.

She added, however, that Beijing would need to demonstrate, “a level of transparency that China has not really shown a willingness to undertake.”

Johnson-Freese also noted that there are some in the Chinese space community who see the U.S. space program as “suffering constant fits and starts, and redirection, and therefore potentially slowing China down in its completion of Project 921 and likely a human lunar program to follow.”

There are dangers, too, including the transfer of technologies. Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation — a conservative think tank — testified to Congress that China’s space program is closely tied to the People’s Liberation Army, and thus any cooperation in space would mean to some measure interacting with the Chinese military.

A different approach

Despite these concerns, the European Space Agency decided in the 1980s to begin to engage with China, and what is seen today is a deepening relationship in areas including space science and soft cooperation in human spaceflight.

Marco Aliberti, a resident fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Austria and author of the 2015 book When China Goes to the Moon…, told SpaceNews that in ESA’s strategic view, “China is going to be one of the major players in the future…and an important partner, especially when it comes to human spaceflight.”

Karl Bergquist, ESA’s international relations administrator, said that ESA’s 22 member states adopted a resolution in December 2014 naming the U.S., Russia and China as ESA’s strategic partners, giving ESA a strong mandate to explore cooperation opportunities with China.

The two sides are now working towards a detailed agreement to fly a European astronaut on the Chinese Space Station. China and Europe are also open to coordinating lunar ambitions, as per the Moon Village concept advocated for by ESA Director-General Johann-Dietrich Woerner.

Exchanges include astronaut trainings and utilizing the ISS and Chinese stations for joint research — initiatives Aliberti said could potentially lead to greater things, and the partnership could right now be the most likely route to getting Europe to the moon.

With these ongoing in the background, Bergquist said ESA remains fully committed to ISS and, as Aliberti points out, the practical requirements of cooperation (such as training, language and growing exchanges) and the timetable for the Chinese Space Station mean a European astronaut is not likely to step aboard until the late 2020s — presumably after the ISS program comes to a close.

Bergquist noted that ESA is strong advocate of cooperation, itself being formed by international collaboration. The agency is keen to act as a bridge-builder.

Yet deepening cooperation with China also has its dangers for ESA. As well as technology transfer that could, for example, impact Europe’s share of the global launch market, Europe lacks many human spaceflight capabilities, which could lead  to a dependency on, and ceding of control to, China in future projects.

CNSA Vice Administrator Wu Yanhau, center, flanked by German Aerospace Centre chairman Pascale Ehrenfreund, left, and ESA Director-General, Johann-Dietrich Werner, right, at the 2017 Global Space Exploration Conference in Beijing in June. Credit: IAF
CNSA Vice Administrator Wu Yanhau, center, flanked by German Aerospace Centre chairman Pascale Ehrenfreund, left, and ESA Director-General, Johann-Dietrich Werner, right, at the 2017 Global Space Exploration Conference in Beijing in June. Credit: IAF

A pivotal moment?

Logsdon points out that there have been pivotal moments in which major decisions on international cooperation have been taken, with profound effects.

For example, the Nixon administration decided to end exploration beyond low Earth orbit with the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, but then invited international participation in the space shuttle program, inviting Europe and Canada to make major contributions in the form of Spacelab and Canadarm. Another is visible today.

“In 1993, the heads of the by-now Russian space program proposed to the United States merging their Mir-2 program with the U.S. Freedom Space Station, and the Clinton administration accepted that offer, and the result is the International Space Station,” Logsdon explains.

The U.S. and China, unable to communicate freely, lack the exchanges enjoyed by ESA and China that could lead to finding mutually beneficial areas for interaction, meaning substantial cooperation appears a long way off.

Yet Logsdon sees a potential agent for change, with the reconstituted National Space Council expected to embark on a major review of space policy.

Pence and the new organization could decide to challenge the position of Congress, bringing the possibility that “Do Not Touch” would no longer apply to the Chinese space program.