For years, China and the United States have pursued similar missions in space. They're both aiming to land on Mars, keep crewmembers in orbit on a space station, and explore the Moon,
But for years, the two superpowers have done so almost entirely independently of one another, with brief periods of scientific and industrial cooperation snuffed out by political tension.
And that's no oversight. Presently, NASA is barred from bilateral discussions with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) by an Obama-era law known as the Wolf Amendment, which says that NASA funding and resources can't be put toward any collaborative projects or even talks with China.
In a recent interview with Futurism, acting NASA head Steve Jurczyk said that the Wolf Amendment makes it hard to monitor what the CNSA is doing, but that he wasn't particularly worried about its ambitions.
"I wouldn’t say it’s a source of concern or pressure, but we are watching closely what the Chinese are doing," Jurczyk said. "And, you know we have been prohibited by Congress from bilateral discussions with China. And so that gives us somewhat less insight into their plan and definitely keeps us from direct collaboration with them."
But perhaps he should be a bit concerned, space policy and international relations experts told Futurism. While it isn't yet as high profile a rivalry as the Cold War-era space race between the US and Russia, outlawing collaboration leaves room only for competition. And as the CNSA grows more prominent and capable, it threatens to displace NASA as the global leader of all things space.
"I think one of the critical concerns today," said Namrata Goswami, a space policy expert and former researcher at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses who has also consulted for firms including Wikistrat and Futures Laboratory, "is that America's leadership in the world is not as strong as it used to be."
For instance, China isn't launching space stations explicitly to compete with the International Space Station (ISS). It's doing so because it wants a sustained human presence in orbit. And yet, the Chinese space station Tiangong-3 will launch shortly before when ISS is expected to be retired. So when other countries need someplace to run a scientific mission or room on an orbital outpost, their go-to partner country might switch from the U.S. to China, space security expert Victoria Samson, the Washington office director at the Secure World Foundation, told Futurism.
"If I were China, looking at developing its own version of the space station, I would absolutely be shooting invitations out to everyone who wants to participate," Samson said. "The fact that the Chinese space station will be coming online roughly when the ISS is going offline, generally speaking — that's a real changing of the guard there."
Ironically, in Samson's analysis, China's space program has grown stronger each time the US has tried to limit its reach.
For example, back in 1950, NASA ousted the prominent Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen, who had worked on the Manhattan Project and was among the first scientists to work on space projects at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. So Qian went back to China, where he helped form the CNSA.
Then, in the 1990s, US companies helped China improve the reliability of its rockets after a slew of failed launches. Congress responded by imposing export controls on anything related to space, which hurt NASA's global market share of the space industry but allowed China to flourish in its absence.
So Congress and NASA would be wise to extend open arms to China under the new presidential administration, the two experts advise. At this fractured moment in international relations, though, that simply doesn’t seem feasible.
Unfortunately, Biden's four-year term is short compared to how far in advance space missions are planned. And at this point, it's not clear what China would have to gain from partnering with the US on space missions.
That's not just because of China's technological capabilities, but because the things it's been able to accomplish with its own space agency have become a matter of national pride, Goswami explains, especially as China exerts its growing influence and prominence in the global economy.
"People forget that the race to the Moon was actually about which political system was more attractive to the world," Goswami said. "It was also out of great fear about the Soviets taking the lead in both the first men launched to space and the first satellite. So that meant the world was looking at the Soviet Union as an example."
But while Russia and the U.S. became close collaborators in space, the same dynamic is unlikely to emerge with China, Goswami suspects, because China is better positioned as a global leader than post-Cold War Russia.
There is room to hope for some improved relations between the U.S. and China, though. Goswami and Samson both pointed to the Artemis Accords, a series of guidelines for the peaceful use and exploration of space, as a positive sign for the future. China hasn't yet signed the Artemis Accords, but they lay the groundwork for a strong, international perspective and approach to outer space that, with the growing coalition of signatories, are difficult to overlook.
NASA will certainly remain an important figure in space, even in a theoretical future during which China becomes a leader in off-world exploration. Documents like the Artemis Accords, deals with various countries' private space industries, and the fact that scientists tend to work with international partners regardless of political squabblings, are all signs that there could be a better relationship between NASA and the CNSA in the future — and that both will continue to be major players.
"I can really be accused of being cautiously optimistic," Samson said.
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