Bolden Between a Rock and a Hard Place on China Cooperation

International Space Station

The Christian Science Monitor has a thoughtful piece about the delicate position that NASA is in regarding cooperation on human spaceflight with China as Administrator Charles Bolden begins talks this week.

In April, for instance, [NASA Administrator Charles] Bolden told a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council that every other major partner in the International Space Station project is interested in working with China on human spaceflight efforts, including the space station.

As if to underscore the point, in June the European Space Agency’s director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, told China’s Xinahua News Agency, “I am really willing to support the extension of the partnership of the ISS to China and South Korea,” although, he added, such a move also would need the approval of other ISS partners.

The danger, Bolden told the advisory council, is that any insistence at keeping China at arm’s length on projects such as the ISS – in which the US holds one vote out of five in setting policy for the station – could end up isolating the US instead. It’s an argument some space-policy specialists outside the government have advanced as well.

Comments by Bolden and other space agency leaders have indicated that China might be brought into the program not as a full partner but on a bilateral basis via cooperative initiatives. The partnership is a result of a complex set of treaties and agreements binding together the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Any changes in them would be complex and time consuming. In the United States, treaties require the advice and consent of the Senate, something that could prove problematic given strong opposition by Republicans and rocky Sino-American relations.

Theoretically, the partners could bring China into the program on a bilateral basis. Practically speaking, forcing the U.S. to accept a major Chinese role in ISS would probably be bad form. The partners would want a unanimous decision to avoid rifts with the Americans, ensure NASA’s full cooperation on technical and procedural matters, and avoid publicly outvoting the program’s largest contributor. The problems caused by dragging NASA kicking and screaming into that arrangement without clear American political support could cause more problems than its worth.

Congress is split on the initiative, with some Republican members protesting Bolden’s trip while Democratic members are supporting it. Next’s month’s mid-term elections, and the possibility that Republicans will retake control of Congress, add even more uncertainty to the effort’s prospects. There’s also the possibility that the White House will dump Bolden after the elections due to dissatisfaction with his job performance.

So, there is much in play. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the months ahead.

Read the full Christian Science Monitor story.