Will international space science and exploration in the twenty-first century be defined by collaboration or competition? The answer may depend on how two space giants, the United States, and China, choose to interact in the next years.
By most measures, the United States remains the world leader in space, but China is steadily pursuing its ambitious space program, planning and executing a series of robotic interplanetary expeditions to places such as the asteroid belt and Jupiter, as well as a sample-return trip to Mars.
China’s five-year plan for lunar research, which includes a recently announced agreement with Russia to jointly establish an International Lunar Research Station manned by human workers.
Meanwhile, China is rapidly constructing its “Heavenly Palace,” the multimodular Tiangong space station, closer to Earth. A three-person crew lives in a core component of the station that is already aloft and operational.
A rapid-fire launch schedule of more astronauts, supply ships, and add-on modules is expected to complete the completion of China’s orbital outpost by late next year.
According to reports, the China Manned Space Agency has given provisional authorization to load the station with over 1,000 research experiments. It is also soliciting international engagement through the United Nations.
It remains to be seen how China’s space program, as well as the country’s collaborative ventures with Russia, would affect US space research goals.
However, other analysts believe it is past time for the United States to seek common ground in the development of a more inclusive multination space strategy.
For the time being, however, restricted legislation makes this easier to say than to achieve.
Congress enacted a bill in 2011 that includes a clause known as the Wolf Amendment.
The Wolf Amendment, named for its author, then-Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, forbids NASA from utilizing federal funding to engage in direct, bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government.
Since, possible repeal of the amendment has been a political football, tossed between hawkish forces seeking to portray China as a growing adversary in space and less aggressive advocates hoping to gain from the country’s spectacular success in that field.
“I believe we will see a combination of collaboration and competition, most likely between two blocs: one led by the United States and the other by China.
And it isn’t necessarily a terrible thing,” argues John Logsdon, emeritus professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and founder and former director of the university’s Space Policy Institute.
“After all, it was the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that propelled us to the moon. The United States and China are competing for global leadership.”
When it comes to China and Russia teaming up to build an International Lunar Research Station, Logsdon believes the US response has been uneven so far.
“We moan about [China’s and Russia’s] lack of transparency half of the time.
But when they make their plans explicit, we’re not happy either,” he continues. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, “Russia went to the United States in 1993 [for assistance in building the International Space Station] to save their space program.” And I believe they are now looking to China to do the same.”
Is it time to start cooperating more closely with China, maybe by repealing the Wolf Amendment? Although Logsdon believes this, he acknowledges that many of his contemporaries disagree.
He believes, “It’s a real subject for policy debate,” and that “repeating the Wolf Amendment in legislation every year is a simple method of avoiding that debate.”
For the time being, Logsdon argues, the US should use diplomatic and scientific channels to test the waters for future collaboration with China, determining whether such cooperation is even viable.
“China may decide to say no, or we may decide to say no,” he says. “However, we are unable to engage at this time to make that decision.”
Fundamentally, though, Logsdon dismisses the notion that China and the United States are destined to participate in another space-based competition analogous to the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
He claims that while there is rivalry, it is not a race.
IN SPACE, CASE BY CASE
Former Florida senator Bill Nelson, who is currently NASA’s 14th administrator, would be the first to disagree.
He claims that the two countries are already engaged in a space race and that the United States must be cautious.
He claims, “I believe we have a very aggressive and, I add, [a] thus far successful” China.
“They said they’d build a space station, and that’s exactly what they did. They promised to bring back lunar samples, which they have done. They are the second country to land and rove on Mars robotically, and they intend to put boots on the moon.”
Nelson says, “They put it out there…, and they typically follow through.” “In truth, China’s civilian space program is their military space program. That is why I believe we will be involved in a space competition with China.”
Nelson was aware of China’s space ambitions even before he arrived at NASA. He chaired the House of Representatives’ space subcommittee for six years and later served as a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation—both positions requiring a solid understanding of geopolitical space activity.
Nelson comments on how things changed with the former Soviet Union, long “our mortal adversary,” when discussing the possibilities of working with China.
The United States and the Soviet Union eventually achieved a stalemate that stretched into space, where collaboration rather than rivalry reigned, in part due to each nation’s massive nuclear arsenals and the attendant danger of mutually assured annihilation.
The International Space Station (ISS), which has been continually crewed by astronauts and cosmonauts for more than two decades and orbits Earth every 90 minutes, is a shining example of what partnership can achieve. “Things don’t always go as planned on Earth,” he argues, “but they do in space.”
Nelson wishes the United States and China had a similar connection. But, he believes, for the time being, the latter nation’s tendency for secrecy stands in the way of any similar collaboration.
More transparency is essential. “Leadership in space is clear leadership that invites all nations to join you,” he continues.
If the decision is taken to engage with China on its space program, “it necessitates a declaration from me that it will not jeopardize our national security.” As a result, we’ll deal with it on a case-by-case basis.”
Working with China to facilitate the sharing of some of the country’s valued specimens from its highly successful Change-5 lunar-sample-return mission could be one example.
According to the Wolf Amendment, there is no ban against American scholars requesting for and acquiring lunar souvenirs as long as they do not use NASA funds and maintain NASA-funded university work distinct from any Chinese-related projects.
China’s Martian-sample-return effort, likewise, is a future possibility. “Their Mars samples would be returning about the same time as ours, so it would be a fantastic opportunity,” Nelson speculates.
IN THE HEAVENS, IS THERE HARMONY?
Of course, even without meaningful cooperation, the recently proposed space partnership between China and Russia has the potential to benefit the United States.
According to Marcia Smith, a seasoned analyst who runs the Web site SpacePolicyOnline.com, it might compel the White House and Congress to unleash floodgates of money to stream into the United States’ civil and military space projects.
But it’s unclear whether this will provide enough financing to satisfy NASA’s Artemis program’s ambitions, which include returning astronauts to the moon as soon as 2024.
“It’s not much of a race,” Smith says of the China-Russia lunar research base, which does not expect human lunar landings until 2036 or later.
Alternatively, because the Wolf Amendment allows NASA to collaborate with China under specific, extremely limited situations, perhaps a more strong partnership is still possible.
“If NASA can persuade Congress that [any] planned cooperation will not result in the transfer of technology or include authorities found by the US to be directly involved in human rights violations, it will be approved,” Smith says.
“It also inhibits bilateral cooperation rather than multilateral cooperation.” Nonetheless, she points out that there is now very little NASA-China space cooperation, with little indication that this will change anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the United States and Russia continue to share responsibility for maintaining and expanding the decades-long multinational human space exploration program that resulted in the development of the International Space Station.
NASA believes that Russia will not only remain a partner on the ISS but will also assist in the construction of a proposed lunar Gateway space station for the agency’s Artemis program, according to Smith.
“Perhaps Russia will opt to work with both China and the international effort led by the United States.
But getting all three to work together to explore the skies? Not without significant geopolitical shifts, which I don’t see in my crystal ball,” Smith says.
POWER DYNAMICS IN DEEP SPACE
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow on Chinese political and security matters at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington, D.C., says it’s unknown how much space cooperation two authoritarian systems can achieve. “It’s simple to make an announcement. “Actual cooperation is difficult,” he admits.
“In any Russia-China space partnership, Russia appears to be the weaker partner,” Cheng adds.
“And Russia, whether with the West after the collapse of the former Soviet Union or, most likely, with China, does not take being the weaker partner well.”
He points out that the US works well with other countries that display openness, intellectual property protection, and the rule of law in regard to human rights and national sovereignty—all of which are areas where conflicts with China have erupted.
Cheng is skeptical of any near-term prospects for cooperation between the two states in space, given their history of hostility and the likelihood of it continuing in the future.
Jim Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University and a major expert on space exploration, collaborates on researching landing sites for future interplanetary missions with Russian and Chinese space scientists, as well as European colleagues.
China’s space ambitions, he argues, will not end regardless of whether they are in confrontation or partnership.
Head jokes, “China is on the silk road’ to space.” “There’s no doubt about it; they’re doing it.
Their space program is significant to them, and it instills national pride and status in them. It is beneficial not only to science but to everything the country undertakes. They will continue to exist even if we bury our heads in the sand and do nothing. They aren’t expecting us.”
China is already on the verge of taking the lead in lunar science, according to Head, because it has shown that it can send sample-return spacecraft to both the near and far sides of the moon and that it can “essentially pump them out like sausages.”
Rather than waiting for the White House to modify the Wolf Amendment, Head advises that scientists petition Congress for an exception so that they can collaborate bilaterally on space projects with their Chinese counterparts.
The Inter-Agency Consultative Group for Space Science, an informal group of researchers from key space agencies that perform interagency collaboration on select missions, could represent a way forward.
Making China a signatory to the Artemis Accords could also be beneficial, according to Head.
These agreements, led by the US Department of State and NASA, describe a shared vision for principles based on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that will allow for safe and transparent exploration, science, and commercial activity on the moon.
As of this writing, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand, South Korea, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all endorsed the Artemis Accords.
“The solar system is a massive structure. It’s just silly if we’re all duplicating things separately. So teamwork, cooperation, and coordination—I believe that’s the way to go,” says Head.
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Leonard David is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race (National Geographic, 2019) and Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet (National Geographic, 2016). He has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades.