One expert says flying Chinese research on the International Space Station could signal the beginning of a potential relationship between the two countries in space.
A Houston company has negotiated a historic agreement to fly a Chinese experiment on the International Space Station, a small but symbolic maneuver around a law that bans any scientific cooperation between NASA and the communist country.
Over a conference table adorned with an American and a Chinese flag, Jeff Manber last week agreed to take a DNA experiment into space next year. Manber's Houston-based company, NanoRacks, helps scientists do research on board the station.
Because of decades of suspicion about Chinese motives and the country's regime, Congress prohibits NASA from working with the country in any capacity. But the new deal, which is apparently legal, could begin to change that.
"It's symbolic, and it's meaningful," Manber said Monday, after returning from Beijing. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Chinese scientists from the Beijing Institute of Technology, led by Professor Deng Yulin, will pay about $200,000 to NanoRacks for its services. This includes delivery of the experiment to the American side of the station in a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and a berth in NanoRacks' orbiting laboratory facilities. In turn the company will send data back to the Chinese researchers.
Congress' prohibition was crafted in 2011 as an amendment by then U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf to block any scientific activity between the United States and China that involves NASA. He was concerned about the Chinese stealing U.S. spaceflight secrets, and about the country's human rights record.
Manber said the deal is purely commercial, and was negotiated with NASA's blessing.
Indeed, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has chafed at the Wolf amendment restrictions, arguing that his space agency should be allowed to at least communicate with Chinese space officials.
"It won't happen under my watch, but some future NASA administrator will be sitting down and having a conversation with his or her Chinese counterpart," Bolden said in an earlier interview.
It's unclear whether Republicans in Congress will attempt to block the NanoRacks deal. U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who assumed Wolf's chairmanship of the House budget committee that oversees NASA, said he wanted to study it in more detail.
However, one space policy expert familiar with the deal, Scott Pace of George Washington University, said he believes this agreement was crafted in such a way as to create minimal controversy.
"It's hard to predict what Congress will do, but given this is a commercial arrangement with a U.S. company, complies with the Wolf amendment, and does not involve the transfer of sensitive technology, I don't believe there will be any formal objections," Pace said.
Symbolically, flying Chinese research could signal the beginning of a potential relationship between the two countries in space, said Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and commander of the space station.
"I think it is of critical importance that the U.S. bring China into future space exploration plans," Chiao said. "The ISS would be a great place to start."
Worked with Soviets
This isn't Manber's first venture into international space politics.
In 1989, while working at the U.S. Department of Commerce, he helped negotiate a deal between an American company and the Soviet Union to fly the first U.S. research project on Russia's Mir space station.
Later, in the early 1990s, he facilitated contracts between NASA and Russia's space program that led to the development of the International Space Station.
"At times commercial companies can play a role in opening the door," he said. "Through this agreement China can contribute in a meaningful way to space research without transferring technology secrets."
The Chinese researcher, Deng, reportedly has no connections to the country's ruling communist party. His research group publishes its work in Western journals, to share it with the global academic community. His space station work will be made available this way, Manber said.
The research concerns the effects of space radiation on DNA, and the rate at which human DNA mutates in the space environment. If the speed at which it changes is too great, it may imperil astronauts on long duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
Although Chinese officials have expressed a desire to work with NASA, they appear set to make a go of it in space with or without the United States.
Along with Russia, China is currently the only other country in the world capable of launching astronauts into space, and has plans to build its own space station. China has also talked to Russia about flying one of its taikonauts to the Russian side of the International Space Station.
Additionally, the country has signaled its intent to explore the moon, landing its Yutu rover there in late 2013, and has discussed human lunar expeditions with potential partners in Europe and elsewhere.
To the moon again
Chiao, the former NASA astronaut, said the U.S. space agency should be a party to those discussions.
"China is going forward, with or without us," he said. "They will go to the moon. The United States is the natural leader of the international coalition to explore space, since we have the experience and resources to be the leader. But we cannot ignore China. Otherwise, we'll be left with maybe flying a few formation flights of Orion with a small boulder around the moon, while China lands on the moon."
Much as the NASA-Russia bond in space has helped the two countries weather geopolitical tensions such as the Ukraine invasion, U.S.-China space cooperation could ameliorate political tensions between the countries over hacking and the South China Sea.
Mike Suffredini, who manages the International Space Station, said in an interview in 2014 that if NASA can work with its former Cold War enemy, Russia, it ought to be able to work with its largest trading partner.
"If we could take the partners we have, and grow that with the people who want to go into space, I would tell you that you could probably decrease your national security budgets," Suffredini said.
"I don't believe that's going to happen tomorrow, but if you make a commitment to go to the far reaches of space, you've made a long-term commitment," he added.
Quelle: Houston Chronicle