The China Space Friends Club

The US refuses to collaborate with China on space missions, but no matter: the Asian powerhouse has the rest of the world in its corner.

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AsianScientist (Aug. 22, 2016) – Contrary to what you may have seen in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, US-China cooperation in outer space is unlikely to happen any time soon—because, according to American law, it is illegal.

The exact reasons for this are a little bit murky, and are far too complicated to go into, but they can be summarized as thus: the US is worried that the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) will steal US space technology, and furthermore, there are concerns over potential Chinese military ambitions in space.

This somewhat archaic and redundant paranoia has resulted in the passing of the so-called Wolf Act, more formally known as Public Law 112-55, SEC. 539, which states that:

“None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”

Named after Republican senator Frank Wolf, the Act basically states that there can be no cooperation between the US and China on space issues. That means Chinese scientists are banned from attending NASA conferences, there can be no technology transfer between NASA and China, and a whole bunch of other unfriendly stuff.

Of course, those of us who realize that a manned Mars mission is likely going to require cooperation on an international scale know that this act is counterproductive. Matt Damon will likely get to Mars a lot quicker with a coordinated global effort. And let’s be clear: China’s doing just fine in space. The Chinese don’t really need to steal ancient, Apollo-era US space technology.

And besides, Chinese space technology is largely based on Soviet space technology. Remember, until the Soviet N1 rocket disaster, the USSR was still winning the space race. Why steal from the runner up?

The good news is that it seems that the rest of the global community didn’t receive the memo regarding American exclusion policy. The last few months have seen increasing cooperation between the Chinese space agency and other international bodies across the globe. Here are just a few examples:

  1. Russia

    Russian cooperation with China in space is nothing new. Since 1992, Russia has been providing China with Soyuz training modules and general technology transfers. Even the Chinese Feitian space suits are based on the Russian Orlan-M space suit.

    But there has been a marked increase in these cooperative efforts over the last year. In June 2016, it was reported that China and Russia have signed a cooperation framework and will begin collaborations on developing new rocket engines and launch vehicles. In addition, China plans to purchase Russian RD-180 engines.

    According to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the two nations plan to increase cooperation in space pharmaceutical development.

  2. European Space Agency

    This year, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced an agreement to further the Dragon Program, an earth observation project which uses European and Chinese satellite data (and personnel) to monitor environmental changes in China. The project is entering its fourth phase and the agreement has been extended until 2020, with some 650 scientists from ESA member states and China working together.

    This isn’t the first such Chinese-European collaboration. The joint Double Star mission saw satellites from both nations launched in 2003 and 2004 to measure the Earth’s magnetosphere.

  3. Poland

    The Polish space agency POLSA was set up in 2014 and has been focusing on international cooperation in order to increase national knowledge in space technology and telecommunications. In June 2016, POLSA signed a cooperation agreement with CNSA enabling collaborations on telecommunications, space tech and satellite data.

  4. India

    At a space conference in New Delhi in April 2016, it was announced that China and India are currently in talks to develop a satellite constellation for monitoring natural disasters and climate change on Earth.

    Being home to significant chunks of the human population, both India and China can see the value in collaboration between the two nations to better understand the changes that we are making to the Earth.

  5. United Nations

    In June 2016, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and China signed an agreement to allow UN member states access to China’s future space station, the Tiangong-3. This is a very nice move on behalf of China, whose taikonauts are banned from visiting the International Space Station. Maybe they will even let American astronauts visit.

    This could potentially have the same political effect that the Apollo-Soyuz project had on the USSR-USA space race, and could well cool any space-based hostilities between the nations.

There are many other smaller collaborations going on in the background, but as you can see from the examples above, it seems that every major player in the world wants to cooperate with China in space. Space is all about international collaboration, and indeed, true progress can only be made within the international community.

Given that the predicted costs of manned Mars missions run into the region of hundreds of billions of dollars—which is far in excess of any space agency’s budget—financial and technological risk-sharing is the only prudent way forward.

The world is eager to join the China Space Friends club. Any refusal on America’s part is only going to harm American status as the world space leader. Cooperation is inevitable—better sooner than later.

This article is from a monthly column called Final Frontiers. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Phillip Keane.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Phillip Keane has a bachelor degree in aerospace engineering from Coventry University, UK, and an MSc in Space Studies from International Space University in France. He loves all things space and science fiction.

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