NASA has long been forbidden from partnering with China; according to policy drawn up in 2011, the U.S. Congress stated firmly that the agency cannot collaborate “in any way with China.” Comments from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, though, suggest that might be set to change.
The policy has been the subject of fierce criticism, especially as China’s space program has rapidly advanced in recent years. The country is one of only three – the U.S. and Russia being the other two – to send its own astronauts to orbit, while it also sent a rover to the Moon in December 2013, and has an experimental space station in orbit.
It has been suggested that NASA would do better working with China on its projects, or even inviting it to the International Space Station, from which it is banned, rather than letting it go it alone. Indeed, China could prove a valuable partner in future missions to the Moon and Mars. Thus, the latest comments from Bolden are encouraging.
"The reason I think that where we are today is temporary is because of a practical statement that we will find ourselves on the outside looking in, because everybody... who has any hope of a human spaceflight program... will go to whoever will fly their people,” he said at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in the past week, reported Reuters.
While the comments don’t suggest a partnership with China is in the works, they do at least hint at a thawing of tensions – although ultimately, which international partners NASA works with will still be mostly dictated by Congress, not Charles Bolden. China seemed to agree with Bolden, though, with Xu Dazhe, administrator of the China National Space Agency (CNSA), adding: “We certainly hope that this temporary timeframe can be shortened. China has no difficulties in our cooperation policies with other agencies.”
In comments earlier this year to CNN, some Chinese astronauts – known as taikonauts – also expressed their desire to cooperate with other nations in spaceflight. “As an astronaut, I have a strong desire to fly with astronauts from other countries,” Commander Nie Haisheng said in the article. “I also look forward to going to the International Space Station.”
At the IAC, Dazhe also said that the CNSA would attempt a lunar sample return mission in 2017, and wanted partners for a mission to the far side of the Moon in 2019 – something ESA has expressed an interest in before.
Whether NASA will truly be allowed to work with China remains to be seen. The policy is in place due to human rights concerns and also national security issues, so it might take more than a few choice words from Bolden to herald a new era of cooperation.
For missions beyond Earth, though, there is only so long NASA can ignore the world’s fastest growing space power.
Image in text: China's Long March fleet of rockets (shown) have been used for its various space endeavors. AAxanderr/Wikimedia.