Tensions between NASA and China

Are there tensions between NASA and China? Does it have an impact on international space relationships? Throughout the years, starting in 2010, the US government has prohibited all researchers from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from working bilaterally with Chinese citizens affiliated with the Chinese government. But recently, scientists and policy makers in the U.S. and Europe were seeking new ways to work with China on its ambitious lunar exploration program.

China’s past experience of major high-technology cooperative ventures (Sino-Soviet cooperation in the 1950s, U.S.-China cooperation in the 1980s until Tiananmen, and Sino-European space cooperation on the Galileo satellite program) is an unhappy one, at best. The failure of the joint Russian-Chinese Phobos-Grunt mission is likely seen in Beijing as further evidence that a “go-it-alone” approach is preferable.

Tensions between NASA and China

In the case of the PRC, the combination of an opaque Chinese space management structure, a heavy military role in what has been observed, and an asymmetric set of capabilities and interests raise fundamental questions about the potential benefits from cooperation between the two countries in this vital arena.

There are tensions between NASA and China. Over the past few years NASA has been prohibited from cooperating with China, which’s space program is arguably one of the most opaque in the world, on space activities. That ruling was originally signed into NASA-funding appropriations bills by Rep. Frank Wolf who chaired the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee before retiring in 2014.

In 2010, Rep. John Culberson, an American attorney and politician who served in the United States House of Representatives from 2001 to 2019, urged President Barack Obama not to allow further contact between NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA). In a letter addressed to the President, regarding the then NASA Administrator Bolden’s upcoming meeting with the China National Space Administration in Beijing, he wrote:

Dear Mr. President:

I have just been made aware that NASA Administrator Bolden will be traveling to Beijing, China, this week to begin a dialogue on human space flight cooperation between NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA). I have grave concerns about the nature and goals of China’s space program and strongly oppose any cooperation between NASA and CNSA’s human space flight programs without Congressional authorization.

Until now, the United States’ involvement with the Chinese space program has been limited to a single Earth science research project. Because of the military nature of China’s space program, Congress has set limitations on cooperation and discussions on human space flight collaboration, particularly without adequate consultation with Congress.

Earlier this year I raised my strong concerns about cooperation with China and offered an amendment to the House FY11 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill that would prohibit any federal funds from being used to develop or plan any collaboration activities with China unless such activities were specifically authorized by Congress. Similar legislative proposals have been offered by other Members of Congress as well.

Considering that Congress has raised concerns about and set limitations on cooperation with China, I do not believe it is appropriate for the Administrator to meet with any Chinese officials until Congress is fully briefed on the nature and scope of Mr. Bolden’s trip and planned discussions on cooperation”.

In April 2011, the 112th United States Congress, a meeting of the legislative branch of the United States federal government, from January 3, 2011, until January 3, 2013, banned NASA from engaging in bilateral agreements and coordination with China.

Public Law 112-55, 112th Congress, Sec. 539.:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to 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 a law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act.

The limitation shall also apply to any funds used to effectuate the hosting of official Chinese visitors at facilities belonging to or utilized by NASA. The limitations shall not apply to activities which NASA or OSTP have certified pose no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications to China or a Chinese-owned company”.

NASA is able to formally collaborate with China as long as it notifies Congress in advance and gets congressional approval of the specific interaction.

China’s 2019 Chang’e 4 mission

Coordination took place between NASA and China’s 2019 Chang’e 4 mission, a Chinese lunar exploration mission that achieved the first soft landing on the far side of the Moon, on January 3, 2019. Chang’e 4 marks the first major US-China collaboration in space exploration since 2011 Congressional ban. Scientists from both countries had regular contact prior to the landing: “So working with China on Chang’e 4 is a one-time, ad hoc thing, not a breakthrough in the relationship” says NASA. This included talks about observing plumes and particles lofted from the lunar surface by the probe’s rocket exhaust during the landing to compare the results with theoretical predictions, but NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was not in the right position for this during the landing. The US also informed Chinese scientists about its satellites in orbit around the Moon, while China shared with the US scientists the longitude, latitude, and timing of Chang’e 4’s landing.

China has agreed to a request from NASA to use the Chang’e 4 probe and Queqiao relay satellite, a Chinese artificial satellite serving as a communications relay for the Chinese astromobile mission Chang’e 4, in future US Moon missions. NASA has also held discussions with the CNSA to look for plumes and other debris lofted from the lunar surface by the Chinese probe’s rocket exhaust during the landing. NASA and the CNSA have agreed that any significant findings resulting from this coordination activity will be shared with the global research community at the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) meeting in Vienna: “All NASA data associated with this activity are publicly available. In accordance with administration and congressional guidance, NASA’s cooperation with China is transparent, reciprocal and mutually beneficial”.

NASA, about potential tensions between NASA and China, stated that: “The statutory prohibition on NASA’s use of appropriated funds for bilateral cooperation with China… does not apply to activities that NASA has certified to Congress, [which] do not pose a risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data or other information with national security or economic security implications to China; and that do not involve knowing interactions with officials who have been determined by the U.S. to have direct involvement with violations of human rights. In accordance with the law, NASA made the appropriate certification to Congress for this activity”.

Increased cooperation between Europe and China

Regarding potential tensions between NASA and China, since the mid-2000s, China, Russia and Europe have been working together towards manned deep space exploration as highlighted by Mars-500, a joint Chinese-European-Russian experiment that will provide ground-based studies to complement orbital research in preparation for a planned manned mission to Mars. The Mars-500 mission was a psychosocial isolation experiment conducted between 2007 and 2011 by Russia, the European Space Agency and China, in preparation for an unspecified future manned spaceflight to the planet Mars.

Between 2007 and 2011, three different crews of volunteers lived and worked in a mock-up spacecraft. The final stage of the experiment, which was intended to simulate a 520-day manned mission, was conducted by an all-male crew consisting of three Russians (Alexey Sitev, Sukhrob Kamolov, and Alexander Smoleevskij), a Frenchman (Romain Charles), an Italian (Diego Urbina) and a Chinese citizen (Yue Wang). The mock-up facility simulated an Earth-Mars shuttle spacecraft, an ascent-descent craft, and the Martian surface. The volunteers who participated in the three stages included professionals with experience in engineering, medicine, biology, and human spaceflight. The experiment yielded important data on the physiological, social and psychological effects of long-term close-quarters isolation.

In 2011, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) collaborated with Chinese scientists in the Shenzhou program, marking the first time both countries worked together on one of China’s Shenzhou missions. In 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced their collaborative Dragon programme with China will extend to 2020. More recently, France and China launched together a satellite to observe climate change (CFOSAT). CFOSAT’s objective is to monitor winds and waves on the ocean surface and to help improve the modelling of sea forecasts used by marine meteorology and our knowledge of the physical processes at work during training and wave evolution.