United States and China: cooperation or competition in space?


United States and China: Will Cooperation or Competition Define the Next Century in Space? Here, Chinese astronauts Tang Hongbo, Nie Haisheng and Liu Boming take part in a ceremony before heading to China’s Tiangong space station, currently under construction in low earth orbit. Image via Roman Pilipey / EPA / The Conversation.

Space race? Or handshake?

Much has been said about the political tensions between the United States and China in recent years. Meanwhile, a long-standing ban is attracting reconsideration, as space experts question whether collaboration – or competition – will define Sino-U.S. Activities in space in the 21st century. Veteran space journalist Leonard David explored this topic in an article published on August 2, 2021 in American scientist. David, who has reported on space for over 50 years, wrote in Sci Am that the answer might come down to how the two nations choose to engage with each other over the next several years.

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David wrote that by most metrics the United States remains a world leader in space exploration. The Chinese government did not participate in the famous 1960s space race between the Soviet Union and the United States, in which the United States finally landed the first humans on the moon in 1969 .

But it has been easy to see in recent years that China is advancing its space program at an accelerated pace. Its plans currently include a permanent Chinese space station, Tiangong (Heavenly palace) by 2022. And, with its Planetary Exploration of China program, it intends to send spacecraft into the solar system, starting with Mars (the ongoing Tianwen-1 mission to Mars is the first), then Jupiter and the asteroid belt.

Chinese leadership in space?

According to David Sci Am article, China is already approaching a leading position in space activities. For example, he quoted Jim Head, a Brown University planetary scientist and leading expert in space exploration, as saying that the one constant in China’s space aspirations, whether conflicted or collaborative, is that they do not will not stop:

China is on the “Silk Road” to space. They’re doing it; there is no doubt. Their space program is important to them, and it establishes national pride and prestige. It’s not only good for science but for everything [the nation does]. If we sit down and bury our heads in the sand and don’t do anything ourselves, they will continue. They are not waiting for us.

And David also quoted Bill Nelson, the 14th administrator of NASA, who was appointed by President Joe Biden. Nelson said of China:

They put it there… and then they usually follow through.

United States and China: 2 countries, 2 outposts

Here are more details about the Chinese space program. The country promoted its partnership with Russia in March when it announced plans to build a moon research station that would be maintained by humans before 2031. In addition, China has demonstrated that it can send sample return spacecraft to the near and far sides of the Moon.

Closer to Earth, China is also working on the construction of its Tiangong multimodular space station. At the time of this writing, a central segment is already in place and operational; its crew of three recently returned to Earth. Next year, a planned rapid fire program will bring more Chinese astronauts to Tiangong, along with supply ships and add-ons, bringing its assembly to a close. According to David, the Chinese Manned Space Agency has given provisional approval to load the station with more than 1,000 science experiments. And it will invite foreign participation through the United Nations. Nelson commented:

I think we have a very aggressive China… They said they would set up a space station, and they did. [They said they would] bring back lunar samples, and they did. They are the second nation to land and robotically move on Mars. They plan to put boots on the moon.

With its plans for outposts in Earth orbit and on the moon – as well as its planetary exploration program of China now heading further into space – one wonders if Chinese will ever become the lingua franca. of our solar system.

United States and China: Chinese are seated at a long table on the left, Americans at a table on the right.  National flags in the background.
U.S. and Chinese diplomats spoke at a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18, 2021. Image via Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Bloomberg.

The Wolf Amendment

It is impossible to know at this point whether or how Chinese space companies will affect the US space program. David wrote:

But some experts suggest it may be time for the United States to seek common ground to craft a more inclusive multinational space program.

For now, however, restrictive legislation makes this much easier said than done. In 2011, Congress passed legislation that included an addition known as the Wolf Amendment. Named after his brain, then representing Frank Wolf of Virginia, the Wolf Amendment prohibits NASA from using federal funds to engage in direct bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government. Since then, the amendment’s potential repeal has been a political football, tossed between hawkish factions keen to portray China as an emerging opponent in space and less combative defenders keen to capitalize on the meteoric rise. of the country in this area for the benefit of the United States.

Supporters of the ban argue that the Wolf Amendment protects the US government from Chinese espionage. Opponents believe that rethinking this approach would not only help build trust between the two superpowers, but could also create a model for the next era of space exploration.

The American flag flies in a room with several large windows and a view of the Earth far below.
On board the International Space Station on June 14, 2015, the Expedition 44 crew prepared to observe American Flag Day in the Dome, the 360-degree vantage point. Image via NASA.

Is cooperation possible?

Is it time for the United States to work more closely with China, and should it start by repealing the Wolf Amendment? So thinks John Logsdon, professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and founder of the university’s Space Policy Institute. He told Leonard David:

I think we’re going to see a mixture of cooperation and competition, probably between two blocs: one led by the United States and the other led by China. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, new NASA administrator Bill Nelson told David that he believes NASA is already very much in a space race with China and that the United States should be ” suspicious “. He warned:

China’s civilian space program is, in effect, their military space program. This is why I think we are entering a space race with China.

Friendly competition

In addition, Nelson seems to favor the philosophy that friendly competition can breed haste and passion. After all, it was the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought humanity to the moon in 1969, just 12 years after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, the October 4, 1957. Nelson previously referred to the Soviet Union as an American country. “mortal enemy.” Yet despite such a strong opinion, he’s happy with how things turned out after the space race. The two nations eventually reached an impasse that has spilled over into space, where cooperation rather than competition reigns today.

The jointly-built International Space Station is a shining example, showing how much multinational collaboration can achieve. It has been flown by both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, orbiting our planet every 90 minutes for more than two decades.

This is the relationship Nelson would prefer the United States to have with China. But for now, China’s penchant for secrecy stands in the way of any similar partnership. It will take more transparency, he thinks. He said to David:

Things don’t go well on dry land… but in space, they do. Leadership in space is transparent leadership for all nations to join with you. It requires certification from me that it does not affect our national security. We will therefore proceed on a case-by-case basis …

Case by case in space

David suggests that a case could work with China to share some of the nation’s samples from its recent and highly successful Chang’e-5 lunar return mission. According to the Wolf Amendment, there is no ban on US researchers requesting and receiving these lunar samples, as long as they do not use NASA funding.

Likewise, the initiative to return Martian samples from China is a prospect for the future. Nelson told David he considered this “a great opportunity.”

David ended his article with a final quote from Brown University planetologist and space scientist Jim Head. He said:

… The solar system is such a big place. If we all duplicate everything individually, it’s just plain stupid. So collaboration, cooperation, coordination: I think this is absolutely the way to go …

And that makes a lot of sense.

A fragile-looking, aluminum-clad, four-legged lunar landing vehicle seen from the orbiter.
The Chinese Chang’e 5 lander and ascension vehicle separated from the orbiter on December 1, 2020, before it landed in the stormy ocean of the moon. Image via CCTV / South China Morning Post.

Conclusion: Will the United States and China collaborate or compete in space activities in the 21st century? EarthSky author Lia De La Cruz writes about space journalist Leonard David’s recent article on this topic in American scientist.

Via Scientific American


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