Space race? Or handshake?
Much has been said of political tensions between the U.S. and China in recent years. Meanwhile, one long-standing prohibition is attracting reconsideration, as space experts ask whether collaboration – or competition – will define Chinese-U.S. activities in space in the 21st century. Veteran space journalist Leonard David explored this subject in an article published August 2, 2021, in Scientific American. David, who has been reporting on space for over 50 years, wrote in Sci Am that the answer could come down to how the two nations choose to engage with one another in the next few years.
David wrote that, by most metrics, the U.S. remains a global leader in space exploration. The Chinese government sat out the famous 1960s space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S., in which the U.S. ultimately landed the first humans on the moon in 1969.
But it’s been easy to see in recent years that China is advancing its space agenda at a quickening 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’s Sci Am article, China is already nearing a leadership position in space activities. For example, he quoted Jim Head, a Brown University planetary scientist and leading expert on space exploration, as saying that the one constant to China’s space aspirations, whether in conflict or collaboration, is that they will not stop:
China is on the ‘silk road’ to space. They are doing it; there’s no question about that. Their space program is important to them, and it establishes national pride and prestige. It is not just good for science but for everything [the nation does]. If we sit and bury our heads in the sand and don’t do anything ourselves, they are still going. They are not waiting for us.
And David also quoted Bill Nelson, NASA’s 14th administrator, who was nominated by President Joe Biden. Nelson said of China:
They put it out there … and then they usually follow through.
U.S. and China: 2 countries, 2 outposts
Here are more specifics about China’s space program. The country promoted its partnership with Russia in March when announcing plans to build a research station on the moon to be tended by humans before 2031. Moreover, China has demonstrated that it can send sample-return spacecraft to both the moon’s near and far sides.
Closer to Earth, China is also working on constructing its multi-modular space station, Tiangong. As of this writing, a core segment is already aloft and operational; its three-person crew recently returned to Earth. Next year, a planned rapid-fire schedule will bring more Chinese astronauts to Tiangong, plus supply ships and module add-ons, thereby bringing its assembly to completion. According to David, the China Manned Space Agency has given provisional approval to load the station with more than 1,000 scientific experiments. And it’ll be inviting foreign participation via the United Nations. Nelson commented:
I think we have a very aggressive China … They said they’d put up a space station, and they did. [They said they would] bring back lunar samples, and they’ve done so. They are the second nation to robotically land and rove on Mars. They plan to put boots on the moon.
With its plans for outposts in Earth orbit and on the moon – plus its Planetary Exploration of China program now heading farther into space – one wonders if Chinese will someday become the lingua franca of our solar system.
The Wolf Amendment
It’s impossible to know at this point if or how China’s space ventures will affect the U.S. space program. David wrote:
But some experts suggest it might be time for the U.S. to search for common ground in shaping a more inclusive multination space agenda.
For now, however, restrictive legislation makes this far more easily said than done. In 2011 Congress passed a law that included an add-on known as the Wolf Amendment. Named after its mastermind, then-representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, the Wolf Amendment prohibits NASA from using federal funds to engage in direct, bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government. Ever since, a potential repeal of the amendment has been a political football, tossed between hawkish factions eager to paint China as an emerging adversary in space and less combative advocates wishing to leverage the country’s meteoric rise in that area to benefit the U.S.
Proponents of the prohibition argue that the Wolf Amendment protects the American government from Chinese espionage. Opponents believe that rethinking this approach would not only help build trust between the two superpowers, but could create a model for the next era of space exploration.
Is cooperation possible?
Is it time for the U.S. to work more closely with China, and should it start by repealing the Wolf Amendment? John Logsdon, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and founder of the university’s Space Policy Institute, thinks so. 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 U.S. and one led by China. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
On the other hand, the new NASA administrator Bill Nelson told David he believes NASA is very much into a space race with China already and that the U.S. must be “wary.” He warned:
The Chinese civilian space program is, in reality, their military space program. That’s why I think we are going into a space race with China.
Furthermore, Nelson appears to favor the philosophy that friendly competition can breed haste and passion. After all, it was the U.S. versus Soviet competition that got humanity to the moon in 1969, just 12 years after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. Nelson has previously referred to the Soviet Union as America’s “mortal enemy.” Yet despite such a strong opinion, he’s pleased with the way things evolved following the space race. The two nations eventually reached a stalemate that extended into space, where cooperation rather than competition reigns today.
The jointly built International Space Station is a shining example, showcasing just what multinational collaboration can achieve. It has been crewed by both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts alike, orbiting our planet every 90 minutes for more than two decades.
That’s the relationship Nelson would prefer the U.S. had with China. But for now, China’s penchant for secrecy stands in the way of any similar partnership. More transparency is what it will take, he believes. He told David:
Things don’t go swimmingly on terra firma … but in space, they do. Leadership in space is leadership in a transparent way for all nations to join you. It calls for a certification from me that it does not affect our national security. So we’ll take it on a case-by-case basis …
Case-by-case in space
David suggests that one case could be working with China to share some of the nation’s samples from its recent and highly successful Chang’e-5 lunar-return mission. Per the Wolf Amendment, there is no prohibition on American researchers asking for and receiving those lunar samples, as long as they don’t use NASA funding.
Similarly, China’s Martian sample-return initiative is one future prospect. Nelson told David he considers it to be “a great opportunity.”
David ended his article with a final quote from Brown University planetary scientist and leading space expert Jim Head. He said:
… The solar system is such a big place. If we’re all duplicating everything individually, that is just stupid. So collaboration, cooperation, coordination: I think that’s absolutely the way to go …
And that makes a lot of sense.
Bottom line: Will the U.S. and China collaborate or compete in space activities in the 21st century? EarthSky author Lia De La Cruz blogs on space journalist Leonard David’s recent article on this subject in Scientific American.