Space is a great stage for diplomacy. Yet, when it comes to cooperating with China’s space program, the United States may have forgotten that lesson. This week, former NASA Commander of the International Space Station, Leroy Chiao, urged leaders in Washington DC to strongly consider the consequences of rebuking China’s offer to collaborate in space. “We Americans have taken for granted that we’ve been the leader in human space flight. But it’s been almost five years since we gave up the ability to launch astronauts into space … It’s much more constructive to engage (with China) than to isolate. If we don’t we risk being left behind.”
Chiao makes a sobering point. While NASA grapples with changing administrations in Congress and the White House, off-hand budget cuts and shifting priorities, China has been gaining ground. In 2003, the Chinese launched their first citizen into space. In 2008, the country conducted their first space walk. By 2013, they celebrated their longest space mission. And recently, China announced that within two years they will begin building their own space station – a station scheduled to be fully operational by 2022. Which, incidentally, is about the time the current International Space Station will reach the end of its life, potentially setting China up to have the only permanent presence in space.
All of which begs the question: if the U. S. is in danger of losing its leadership in space, why not collaborate? It worked before …
In 1957, when Cold War tensions were escalating between the U.S. and Soviet Union, President Eisenhower faced a similar dilemma. News that the Soviets launched Sputnik sent shockwaves of paranoia throughout America. The same rocket technology that catapulted Sputnik far above the Earth’s atmosphere was also capable of launching a nuclear warhead at the U.S. within minutes. Thankfully, Eisenhower didn’t recoil from the Soviet show of power. Instead, Eisenhower began sending letters to then Prime Minister Khrushchev, suggesting the two countries “work together to secure outer space for peaceful purposes.” But Khrushchev fired back, demanding the U.S remove nuclear weapons from Turkey as a precondition for cooperation. And this marked the beginning of connecting diplomacy on Earth to space collaboration.
Sensing space exploration would play a vital role in preserving future peace; the U.N. convened the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – which both the U.S. and the Soviet Union quickly joined. The 1958 Space Act, permitting U.S. scientists to collaborate and share information with Soviet scientists without fear of laws governing espionage and treason, also facilitated open dialogue between experts. In truth, Soviet and U.S. scientists have maintained back-channel communications for over fifty years regardless of political tensions – from the U-2 incident, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, to President Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” and more recently conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine – scientists have proven they can and do remain agnostic.
Though political tensions with China come nowhere close to those during the Cold War era, leaders heedlessly dismiss the opportunity to work together. In 2011, Republican Frank Wolf (R-VA) —chair of the House spending committee which oversees NASA— inserted a clause into the federal spending bill prohibiting develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, funds from being used “to order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.” The bill was so anti-Chinese it went so far as to bar Chinese journalists from attending the launch of Endeavor’s final mission.
“We don’t want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them,” Wolf told Science Magazine. “And frankly, it boils down to a moral issue… Would you have a bilateral program with Stalin?” Wolf’s paranoia continued, “China is spying against us…. They are stealing technology from every major U.S. company. They have taken technology from NASA, and they have hit the NSF computers. … You name the company, and the Chinese are trying to get its secrets.”
Regrettably, the Congressman’s sentiment and 2011 bill had an anti-Chinese ripple effect. In 2012, The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission prepared an extensive report warning against China’s view of international space travel. And in 2015, a report by UCSD’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, argued that “China’s efforts to use its space program to transform itself into a military, economic, and technological power may come at the expense of U.S. leadership and has serious implications for U.S. interests.” Sounds eerily similar to opponents who vigorously fought Eisenhower’s efforts to partner with the Soviet Union.
And what do the Chinese think of the U.S reaction? According to Wang Jin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense there is no rational reason for fear, “The Chinese government has always advocated the peaceful use of outer space – it opposes space weaponization and an arms race in outer space.” To prove their intentions, the Chinese government invited former International Space Station Commander, Chiao, to visit their Astronaut Center and speak openly with Chinese astronauts – who – according to Chiao – were conducting scientific work very similar to astronauts in the U.S. He saw no evidence to support Wolf and other leader’s accusations.
If there’s no real evidence that working with China would be any less advantageous than collaborating with the Soviet Union, then we are left with only one possibility: irrational fear. China-phobia. And the regrettable possibility that China-phobia may continue to drive public policy, costing America their leadership in space.
So what it would take for diplomacy to surmount fear? For cooperation to supplant competition? John Logsdon, of the Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. says that like other policies based on irrational fear, it all starts at the top, “The first step is the White House working with congressional leadership to get current, unwise restrictions on such cooperation revoked.” Commander Chiao couldn’t agree more. According to Chiao, it’s not too late to draw upon the hard-learned lessons of the Cold War. “It makes all the sense in the world for the United States to lead an international effort… if we can bring in all the international partners we currently have, plus newcomers like China, then we would retain our leadership position.”