The Moon and Cooperation With America From a Chinese Perspective

A taikonaut emerges from China's Shenzhou 7 spacecraft after a successful orbital flight

The Global Times has a couple of stories looking at possible U.S.-China cooperation from a Chinese perspective. One is a Q&A with a senior consultant with China’s lunar exploration program. The second is a story about NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s upcoming trip to China. This website is very pro-Chinese government, so it likely that the views closely track with official policy. So the perspective is valuable.

In the Q&A, lunar program consultant Ouyang Ziyuan has some interesting comments about the nature of the nation’s lunar program, international cooperation and competition, and related matters

GT: Is there a new space race?

Ouyang: I am strongly against seeing lunar exploration as a race. The second round of lunar exploration is quite different from the first one conducted by the US and the former Soviet Union, which was a struggle for hegemony in space.

Every competent country will certainly take part in space exploration out of self-development and for technological and scientific progress. These countries are working together to contribute to the sum of human knowledge and development.

Those who highlight China’s alleged ambitions for control may have different agendas and motivations.

Ouyang also says that although China has a human spaceflight program, it still lags far behind Russia and the United States, who are the leaders. China belongs to a second group that includes Europe, India and Japan — nations that have launched lunar spacecraft. He said there is a third group of emerging nations that are preparing to explore space in a significant way.

Ouyang also commented on competition with India, indicating that China is looking over its shoulder at that emerging superpower. He also said that China had no definitive plans for human lunar landings as of yet.

India has always taken China as a competitor in this regard. It is determined to realize manned lunar exploration by 2020. We need to understand India. As a large country, it needs lunar exploration to spur technological development and invigorate the national spirit.

There is still not a definite timetable for China’s manned lunar exploration. The former director of NASA once said that if China were willing, it would send its astronaut to the moon by 2020. Some domestic scientists have suggested 2025 as a proper time and some have suggested 2030.

The second story concerns Bolden’s visit to China, which he will leave for on Saturday.

Pang Zhihao, a Chinese expert on space technologies, told the Global Times that cooperation between China and the US in space flight could be a win-win situation.

“One major aspect of cooperation might be space-docking technology, which China is planning to develop in the next phase,” Pang said. “The US has a lot of experience in this field.”

“With the space shuttles retiring in a few years, the US is dependent on Russia for carrying astronauts. But its contract with Russia will expire soon, and it’s expected that the US will have to pay more in the new contract. China might be another more economic option for the US at that time,” he added.

There is an inescapable logic to the idea of flying American astronauts aboard Shenzhou spacecraft. If the U.S. and China are going to cooperate on human spaceflight, NASA will not be able to provide a vehicle for Chinese taikonauts to fly on for a minimum of three to four years. Or longer. So, anything near term would have to be on Chinese vehicle. China has launch capability with its Shenzhou spacecraft and is planning to launch a small space station next year.

Still, the idea of the U.S. relying on China for human spaceflight will not go over very well with critics in Congress, who have already attacked Bolden for going forward with the trip. Being reliant on what they view as an oppressive regime for human spaceflight — something closely tied to U.S. national pride and technological prowess — is not an appetizing prospect. If Republicans take control of Congress next year, there may be even more hostility to the idea given the party’s visceral hatred of the autocratic Chinese regime.

Such an arrangement would be different from previous cooperative ventures in which the U.S. partnered with other nations. The Apollo-Soyuz Project in 1975 involved a joint docking between U.S. and Soviet spacecraft. The Mir collaboration involved visits by American space shuttles and long-term stays by American crew members after a thaw in relations. The International Space Station has been a fully integrated cooperative effort by partners with complementary capabilities. These have been real partnerships between strong and roughly equal human spaceflight programs, an important consideration for both sides.

Having to rely on the Russians for transportation once the shuttle program ends next year is a difficult but acceptable option for NASA. It has been done before after the space shuttle Columbia disaster. The U.S.-Russian partnership that has been built over nearly 20 years seems strong enough to handle it. The Russians benefit from the payments. NASA’s funding of freighters to ship cargo to the station will help lessen that burden on the Russians. The American government has also pledged to fund  the station for another five years through 2020, which the Russians strongly supports.

So, despite an upcoming gap in human spaceflight launches, the U.S. will continue to have a robust program and a leadership role in the 15-nation ISS partnership. Relying for human spaceflight on China, a relative new comer to space with whom the U.S. has a rocky relationship, is a much more difficult challenge politically. To critics, it suggests weakness and subservience that does not sit well after 50 years of American leadership in space. You can see this in the criticism of Bolden’s upcoming trip.

The presence of an alternative to Russia’s Soyuz vehicle could be a valuable bargaining chip for NASA, which is chafing under the ever increasing cost of launching astronauts to ISS about Soyuz spacecraft. One wonders, however, if the cost of ensuring that Chinese vehicles can safely link up with ISS would outweigh the money saved. The coordination required for flights would not be trivial even though Shenzhou is based on the Russian Soyuz design.

Any joint U.S.-China flights would probably not be supportable on economic grounds; there would have to be deeper political and technological benefits for both sides. Such a collaboration would have to avoid charges that America was building up the Chinese space effort through the transfer of technology and know-how and cash payments for astronaut rides.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, emerges from these talks.

Read the full Ouyang interview. The Bolden story is here.