The debate gained more urgency recently after China became just the third nation to retrieve samples from the moon, the latest in a series of major achievements for its ambitious space program.
Lawmakers are skeptical of any cooperation, and have made it difficult to join forces with China in space.
Top advisers to Joe Biden have argued that it's important to cooperate with China on space exploration, even as the incoming administration treats Beijing as its top economic and military competitor in virtually every other realm.
They assert that despite China's pattern of stealing American technology and diverting it for military purposes, a limited space partnership between Washington and Beijing could reduce tensions and the likelihood of a destabilizing space race. The move would be akin to the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia's civilian space programs during the height of the Cold War.
“Trying to exclude them I think is a failing strategy,” Pam Melroy, a former astronaut who is serving on Biden’s NASA transition team and is among those being considered to lead the space agency, told POLITICO before the election. “It’s very important that we engage."
Most of the nearly two dozen former astronauts, government officials and space experts interviewed by POLITICO agreed that America could lose its position as the global space leader if it shuts Beijing out entirely.
“My concern is not that China is going places, but that our partners are going to China,” said former NASA administrator and astronaut Charles Bolden, who endorsed Biden and worked with him in the Obama administration. “We seem to be satisfied to allow them to go off and build their own space station. … That’s short sighted. … It’s not the mark of a good leader.”
The transition team declined to comment on Biden's plans for China and space. Biden has said little about space during the campaign and has not broached the issue of working with China on exploration.
A move toward peace through space would be difficult to reconcile with China's aggressive actions, including the theft of intellectual property, abuse of religious leaders and cultural minorities, and development of anti-satellite weapons.
Lawmakers are skeptical of any cooperation, and have made it difficult to join forces with China in space. Anything the U.S. shares with China, they argue, could ultimately come back to hurt it
"It's one thing to be willing to share things with a former adversary who is weakened and not in a position to exploit what you’re sharing," said Michael Lopez-Alegria, an astronaut who flew four missions to space. "I don't think that's true with the Chinese. I think we're very leery about them learning about our technology and putting it to their own uses that might not be in our best interest."
Capitol Hill stands in the way
One barrier to working with China is that Congress made it harder for the two nations to collaborate in space, citing Beijing's history of stealing intellectual property, using technology developed by other nations or companies to bolster its military and violating human rights.
In 2011, former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) included an amendment in the NASA authorization bill that prohibited the space agency and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any appropriated money on cooperation with China. If either agency wanted to work with China, it had to seek a specific exception from the FBI, which would have to certify that there were no risks to sharing information and that none of the Chinese officials involved had committed human rights abuses.
Wolf retired from Congress in 2015, but the language is included in each year’s appropriations bills, including the fiscal 2020 spending bill for the space agency.
The amendment halted conversations about broadening cooperation with Beijing. As a member of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009, Chinese-American astronaut Leroy Chiao said he proposed an exchange in which a U.S. astronaut would launch on a Chinese spacecraft and a Chinese taikonaut would fly on an American rocket. But any consideration of the proposal was stopped by the passage of the Wolf amendment.
The “paranoia or level of craziness” driven by the legislation led to Chinese journalists not being credentialed to cover space shuttle launches, Chiao said.
But Wolf told POLITICO he thinks the prohibition, which had bipartisan support when he introduced it, is still necessary today and should become permanent. And he also believes it still has strong support in both parties on Capitol Hill.
“China has taken a lot from the United States. China is catching up. We are still ahead of them, but they are catching up,” he said. “China has more to learn from the U.S. than we have to learn from them. … So any cooperation would mean they take from us, not that we take from them.”
'We may have missed the window'
NASA can still work with China under the Wolf amendment as long as the FBI signs off that there are no risks to sharing information For example, the head of NASA’s Earth science division met with officials in China in 2015 to discuss working together on carbon monitoring satellites.
Commercial companies are not subject to the same restrictions as federal agencies, making them another avenue for cooperation. Chinese researchers sent an experiment to the International Space Station in 2017 by working with Nanoracks, a private company that helps others use the orbiting lab. Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber said five doctoral students from the Beijing Institute of Technology built the whole project in the U.S. and published their results in an English scientific journal, adding that “there are ways to structure it” to work together while protecting American interests.
Another obstacle to overcome for any serious relationship is the lack of trust between the two nations driven by decades of tensions on Earth on military, economic and cybersecurity issues.
“China wants to do it on their own,” Chiao said. “I think we may have missed the window to cooperate with China in space at least in the near and medium term.”
But the U.S. has used space to improve an untrustworthy, tense relationship before, when it partnered with the former Soviet Union. In 1975, a handshake in space between astronauts and cosmonauts was broadcast to the world in the midst of the Cold War. Less than 50 years later, Moscow is Washington’s closest ally in space, launching American astronauts on Russian Soyuz rockets and operating jointly on the International Space Station.
The relationship in space between Americans and the Soviets benefited both sides. During the fall of the Soviet Union, the country needed the influx of cash and clout that came with joining with the Americans. And the U.S. were able to shape how Soviet scientists used their talents, tying up Russian money and expertise in joint projects such as the International Space Station instead of them building up military capabilities on solo projects.
The U.S. had the opportunity to forge a similar relationship when China sought to work on the International Space Station program, something that the “whole world” wanted China to participate in instead of going “off building on their own,” Bolden said. Some analysts and former officials say it was a mistake to prevent China from joining the program, because now its technology is so advanced it does not need the U.S. to accomplish big space goals such as landing on the moon.
“We could have sucked in a lot of their human spaceflight program, as we did with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College. “It’s possible if not probable that the next transmission from the moon will be in Mandarin, and since the vast majority of space technology is dual use, they have reaped significant military space benefits from going off on their own.”
The risks of eclipsing the U.S.
Some former officials think neither China nor the U.S. has anything to gain from a partnership at this point, beyond a vague hope that the geopolitical relationship might improve.
“That’s the missing piece,” Lopez-Alegria said. “In a philosophical way, you could say we could gain a cessation or decrease in the hostile attitude, but it seems like a pretty heavy lift for what is ultimately a pretty small level of cooperation.”
China hawks have laid out the dangers of working with China, including the potential theft of American intellectual property and the global perception of working with an authoritarian nation that persecutes religious leaders. China is also developing weapons designed to destroy American satellites.
But advocates of a closer relationship point out that there are risks to keeping China at arm’s length as well, including America losing its position as the partner of choice in space exploration.
The International Space Station is expected to be retired before 2030. Unless a company launches a commercial space station, the Chinese habitat that Beijing is expected to finish building in 2022 could soon be the only choice for Russia, Europe and Japan, which want to conduct experiments in low-Earth orbit, according to former astronaut and SpaceX adviser Garrett Reisman.
Other nations are already finding reasons to prefer working with China.
Washington is plagued by budgetary battles, halted initiatives and a space program that can face dramatic shifts when new administrations or lawmakers are elected. Some allies have been burned by investing in a program from which the U.S. later pivots away, Freese said.
“The Chinese work far more slowly, but once they set a goal, they are focused on it and keep with it,” she said. “So I think other countries like the idea of going with China for its persistence.”
China has also made a “deliberate effort” to offer different capabilities from other nations’ space programs, Freese added. For example, China has the world’s largest radio telescope that can be used for radio astronomy and was also the first to land on the far side of the moon, allowing it to offer allies data they can’t get anywhere else.
“They decided not to try to compete with the U.S. in terms of drawing partners away from us, but instead by offering different opportunities than we are,” she said.
Beijing is increasing its use of space as a tool of diplomacy, especially with aspiring space-faring nations in the Asia-Pacific and Africa, said Frank Rose, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy in the Obama administration and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“The administration really needs to re-energize our cooperation with partners around the world on outer space. If we don’t, China certainly will fill that vacuum,” he said.
The mission to return lunar samples to Earth is an example. China plans to share data and samples with other countries for scientific research, Ars Technica reported. But a Chinese official said that because of the "unfortunate" Wolf amendment, China would not be able to send any samples to the United States.
'We need to have them in the room'
One of the top priorities for the Biden administration should be modifying the Wolf amendment to allow for “limited space engagement,” with China in areas such as scientific research and robotic space exploration, according to a recommendation from the nonprofit Secure World Foundation.
There’s no clear champion in Congress to pick up this effort, and most experts agree expanding areas of cooperation with China in space will require a commitment from executive-level leaders. Given the incoming Biden administration’s silence on space policy issues so far, some are not optimistic this will be a top priority for the president or his Cabinet.
“Honestly speaking, I think there’s a lot less controversial things they could be doing in space that they’ll probably want to get their feet wet with,” said Victoria Samson, Washington office director for the nonprofit Secure World Foundation. “It requires expending a lot of political capital on something that’s very easy to criticize.”
But others are hopeful Biden’s reputation as a deal maker and diplomat could at least open the possibility of greater cooperation. Asif Siddiqi, a professor at Fordham University, predicted “a slow kind of opening” under Biden, though he was also careful to point out that it also depends on whether China hawks on Capitol Hill will soften and whether China is even willing to negotiate.
Many advocates of more cooperation said working together on scientific space research is a good starting point because there would be minimal opportunities for technology transfer and both countries could benefit from scientific discoveries.
“That would be most successful when we focus on science, where intellectual property is less of an issue,” Melroy said.
Others said the U.S. and China should partner on topics that are critical to both countries’ success, such as sharing data on tracking objects in orbit to avoid collisions or on space weather forecasting of events that can interfere with electronics on Earth. Commercial industries in both countries are pursuing constellations of huge numbers of small satellites, so both could benefit from working together on a set of best practices to operate these clusters safely and avoid space debris, said Ian Christensen, director of private sector programs at the Secure World Foundation.
A good first step to any cooperation would be getting China to sign on to the Artemis Accords, a set of guidelines for the peaceful and sustainable exploration of space that NASA is using to build an international coalition to return to the moon. The U.S. has already gotten signatures from Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, and “there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t be doing the same with China,” Manber said.
“The political problems make it more imperative to have cooperation,” he said. “We need to have them in the room. We need to understand them.”