SPEAKING FREELY Time ripe for US-China space cooperation
By Andrew M Johnson
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
China's recent success with its Chang'e-3 moon mission has brought the country's active and ambitious space program into the international spotlight. China is now the third country to successfully execute a soft-landing on the lunar surface and the first to do so in 37 years.
China's insistence on the sustained development of its spaceflight capabilities in recent years is emblematic of its blooming
domestic aerospace industry and emergence on the global stage as a nation with superb technological ability. The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has relied on long-term, patient, and sustainable progress to develop its spaceflight capabilities, and its recent accomplishments have consolidated the agency's position as one of the world's premier space programs.
The successful docking of Shenzhou-9 and Tiangong-1 in June 2012 demonstrated CNSA's mastery of orbital rendezvous, maneuvering, and docking techniques. A year later in June 2013, Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang, and Wang Yaping successfully demonstrated automatic and manned rendezvous and docking procedures with the Tiangong module during the Shenzhou 10 mission. With the success of its soft landing on the moon, CNSA's experience and momentum have grown significantly.
While the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has plans to return to the moon sometime in the distant future, it is very likely that China will have established (and sustained) a manned lunar presence on the moon long before NASA gets beyong low Earth orbit. But the exploration and utilization of space is an important and worthwhile priority for both China and the United States, and both programs have long-term ambitions to develop and fly long-duration missions beyond Earth orbit to the moon, Mars, and other locales throughout the solar system.
NASA at a crossroads
Persistent budgetary constraints and lack of public support have cast a shadow over NASA in recent years. While the underfunded space agency struggles to allocate its own resources suitably among its internal branches and programs, it is also engaged in an uphill fight for more federal support. NASA's critics attribute this to the absence of the mission-driven attitude that accompanied the Apollo program.
Currently, NASA has three near-term priorities: i) development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) for a proposed asteroid retrieval mission; ii) testing and preparation of the $8.8 billion James Webb Telescope to be launched in 2018, and iii) the continued maintenance and operation of the International Space Station (ISS).
If held intact, the Obama administration's asteroid retrieval mission could generate some public excitement and allow NASA to develop and test a new hardware set (the SLS heavy-lift booster and MPCV). But bureaucratic gridlock in congress and a change in administration could threaten the sustainability of the asteroid program, which has not generated significant excitement from the public or congress.
The overall picture for space exploration in the US is not bleak, however. As the appropriation battle with congress rages on, NASA has turned to private commercial launch providers to resupply the ISS. When the Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011, NASA began outsourcing trips to the International Space Station (ISS) by purchasing seats on the Russian Soyuz at $63 million each. But by then, help was well on the way.
In 2012, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) became the first private company to successfully deliver cargo to the ISS - starting an era of public-private partnership that may define the agency in the coming years. SpaceX has advertised that its modified Dragon capsule - the DragonRider - will be able to ferry seven crew members to the ISS at $20 million a seat - roughly one third the price tag of the Soyuz. If SpaceX can deliver on the goods - which neither I nor anyone in the industry doubt - it would be an astonishing display of American private enterprise coming to the rescue.
As expected for an industry in its infancy, competition is ramping up as the feasibility of the private space industry emerges from the far flung speculation of enthusiasts. Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp - another private launch services company - has also secured a multi-year contract with NASA to resupply the ISS valued at US$1.9 billion. In 2013 the company successfully launched its Antares launch vehicle carrying the Cygnus pressurized cargo vehicle, a capsule capable of delivering 2 tons to the ISS.
But SpaceX and Orbital are just the start. If the industry continues to mature, space exploration in the US could soon be principally driven by private enterprises. In 2012, NASA went on a $16.7 billion commercial space company contract spree and has since awarded contracts to Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, Paragon, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Space Exploration Technologies, and Orbital Sciences. Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for NASA's Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and Boeing are building the core and upper stage of NASA's Space Launch System heavy-lift booster along with the CST-100 capsule.
In the coming years, these companies will continue to drive down the cost of human spaceflight and help NASA push forth the space frontier in the years to come.
With respect to commercial launch vehicle and satellite market share, it is likely that America's private aerospace conglomerate will eventually find itself competing with China's burgeoning spaceflight industry (hopefully in a friendly way). A statement from SpaceX vice president for government affairs Adam Harris suggests this. At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' Space 2013 conference in San Diego, Harris told the press, "We really feel at SpaceX that the competition is going to be the Chinese space program". 
CNSA's approach to space exploration is characterized by a strong central government with an array of competing state-owned enterprises which design, develop, test, and integrate the necessary spaceflight hardware required to fulfill the country's long-term vision. The Chinese government maintains that space activity is of vital importance to the nation's economic position, national security and social well being. Because the China's centrally planned state model makes long-term plans (lasting decades in some cases), CNSA doesn't have to worry about fiscal uncertainty and mis-allocated budget appropriations.
A consortium of technology contractors, academies, and partner universities comprise the primary limbs of the Chinese space program. The development path of CNSA's Shenzhou capsule is a good example of this. The spacecraft was designed and built by a several different institutes. Shenzhou's orbital and re-entry module were designed by China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), and the service module along with the electrical power system, propulsion system, and telemetry, tracking, and control systems was designed by Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST).  The capsule's environmental control and life-support system was designed by the Institute of Space Medicine Engineering, the on-board applications were developed by Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and the launch escape system was produced by the Academy of Aerospace Solid Propulsion Technology. 
In addition to a successful suite of Changzheng (Long March) launch vehicles, China has established a strong domestic telecommunications industry to satisfy the growing domestic demand in a world increasingly dependent on wireless data traffic. Many of China's satellites are designed and operated by China Academy of Space Technology, an organizational unit of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and one of CNSA's primary contractors.
CNSA is launch, multiple satellites, and recoverable satellites capable - making it one of three such programs alongside the US and Russia. The agency currently operates a total of 115 satellites - compared with 445 in the US and 110 in Russia. CNSA's suite of satellites include the Beidou navigation satellites, Dongfanghong communications satellites, Fengyun meteorological satellites, Yaogan remote sensing satellites, Ziyuan Earth resource satellites, Haiyang ocean satellites, disaster and environment monitoring satellites, and Tianhui stereoscopic imaging satellites.
In addition to launch, operation, and servicing of its own satellites, CNSA hopes to increase its share of the global commercial satellite launching business from the current 3% to 15% by 2020.  If this target is realized, the five-fold increase in market share will likely be driven by customers throughout Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.
When comparing the activity and structure of NASA and CNSA, we must keep in mind that neither country's system is inherently "better" than the other. Rather, the two systems represent programs at different stages functioning in two completely different socio-political-economic environments.
Historically, competition has been a great catalyst for spaceflight development but in the coming age of space exploration a proper balance between competition and cooperation could bring out the best of NASA and CNSA. Unfortunately, congressional theatricality currently prohibits NASA and CNSA from working together.
NASA restricted from working with CNSA
Appropriation bills originating in the 2011 Continuing Resolution (and NASA's 2012 Fiscal Year appropriation) imposed the following funding restrictions: NASA may not "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate, bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized [by law]." 
Initially, the restrictions evolved from legitimate concerns about sensitive technology transfer and cyber-security threats. But a strong case has been made that these concerns are not only outdated, but ineffective and detrimental to the long-term health of the US-China relationship.
What is absent in congressional commentary on "Chinese cyber-threats" is the important distinction between cyber-threats originating from within China's borders - often perpetrated by skilled individuals and private hacking groups - as opposed to cyber-threats directly linked to the Chinese government. Convinced of the latter scenario, the House Intelligence Committee has been peeking over shoulders far and wide searching for reasons to justify this kind of anti-cooperative legislation.
If cyber-security and sensitive technology were really the issue here, technology-intensive government agencies like Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health would also be restricted from collaborating with China. To date, NASA is the only major technology-intensive government agency that does not cooperate bilaterally with the Chinese. Furthermore, the private technology contractors which develop most of NASA's hardware (Boeing, Lockheed, etc) do - under certain constraints - collaborate with Chinese talent and customers.
Not surprisingly, a key voice opposing the NASA-CNSA restrictions is NASA administrator Charlie Bolden - who has been increasingly forthright in his attempts to convince congress to lift the restrictions. The fact that congress has maintained the restrictions without even considering the case against them by the NASA administrator himself is revealing. Furthermore, the restrictions undermine the primary rationale for having a space program - to explore ambitiously, expand aggressively, and defend at all costs the single piece of common ground we all share, called Earth.
The real issue is that a few ill-informed (but nonetheless influential) congressional leaders (with blatant anti-Chinese sentiment) have maintained their position on the issue for purely political reasons. It is clear that American public policy makers must take a new look at working shoulder to shoulder on space-related issues with China.
If the US and China capitalize on the present opportunity to collaborate in space as allies, the benefits will far outweigh the costs (which remain to be seen). The first step is simple: the US and China should prioritize the negotiations by drafting a meaningful and comprehensive bilateral space cooperation treaty. The treaty's terms should allow cooperation, transparency, and contain clauses in the interest of the House Intelligence Committee.
Working together with China will certainly be an easier pill to swallow for critics than was the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The project marked the end of the US-Soviet "space race" and the final flight of the Apollo program. During the nine-day project, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts conducted joint rendezvous and docking procedures successfully.
The project marked the first instance of international human spaceflight and laid the groundwork for a new era of cooperative space exploration. In spite of the political turbulence which had crippled the US-Soviet relationship, collaboration was inevitable. From the history of the US-Soviet "space-race" dynamic of exploration we have learned that - while it may be a strong motivation in early stages - confrontational politics eventually cede to progress.
Recall that when China was turned away from participating in the construction of the International Space Station in the early 1990s, it decided to build its own. When the Tiangong-2 module is launched in 2015 aboard the semi-heavy lift Long March-5 vehicle, China will be one step closer to completion of its indigenously developed 60-ton Tiangong Space Station.
The station is set to be complete in the early 2020s, around the same time the International Space Station is scheduled to be decommissioned. Despite being rejected from helping construct the ISS on political grounds, China has assured the world that its space station will be open to non-Chinese astronauts to do research there. In fact, the European Space Agency is already in discussion with China regarding future collaboration.
In contrast to the American and Soviet "Cold War" paths of spaceflight development, China has a list of priorities and is sticking to them closely. If the track record is any guide, we should expect CNSA's capabilities to expand at a moderate and sustainable pace for the foreseeable future. I suspect that in the coming years it will become increasingly apparent that bilateral US-China cooperation in space would be mutually beneficial for both countries and a catalyst for accelerating the development of space-related technologies.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Andrew M Johnson writes on cyber-security, sensitive technology, and the aerospace industry. He is an undergraduate physics major at Clemson University and will be attending Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China in fall of 2014.