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Space Station

Why the United States needs to work with China in space

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Cosmic conundrum
    China's space ambitions presents the US with a choice – co-operate on joint missions, or restrict collaboration and risk a Soviet Union-like space race. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Going it alone
    Barred from participating in the International Space Station, China created its own for current missions to dock onto – the Tiangong-1 module. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Zero-g lessons
    As part of efforts to popularise the space programme among young people, female astronaut Wang Yaping is filmed creating a water ball on board Tiangong 1. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Space epic
    History shows the benefits of superpower space partnerships. A key moment was the Apollo-Soyuz
  • Training day
    Astronauts (L) and cosmonauts (R) trained together at Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston, here on a mock-up of the docking module designed to link the craft. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • In sight
    View of the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit, photographed by the Apollo astronauts (L) and the Apollo spacecraft as seen from Soyuz (R). (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Meeting of minds
    US astronaut Donald Slayton (left) and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov meet in a historic moment on board the Soyuz Orbital Module. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Historic handshake
    Astronaut Thomas Stafford (foreground) shakes hands with Alexei Leonov. The two teams carried out around 47 hours of docked operations in orbit. (Copyright: Nasa)
  • Symbolic act
    The astronauts and cosmonauts assembled this special commemorative plaque in orbit as a symbol
Should the two superpowers collaborate on missions? Yes, argues Richard Hollingham, history shows what’s possible when you stop treating rivals as the enemy.

On 17 July 1975, the United States and Soviet Union faced each other in space. On board the Apollo capsule was Donald “Deke” Slayton, Nasa’s most senior astronaut. Commanding the Soyuz spacecraft was Soviet hero Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space.

At 12.12pm (Eastern Daylight Time), the two spacecraft docked. Three hours later the hatches opened and the space rivals shook hands in orbit 138 miles (222km) above the Atlantic Ocean.

Alongside Yuri Gagarin’s first orbit of the Earth and the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, Apollo-Soyuz is one of the key events in the relatively short history of human spaceflight. From a practical perspective – and this was the line that Nasa peddled at the time – the mission proved that if one nation got into trouble in orbit, another could attempt a rescue. But the political significance of Apollo-Soyuz was far more important. 

Back on Earth in 1975, the two superpowers were as divided as ever – with thousands of nuclear-tipped warheads aimed at each other across the Iron Curtain. In space, it was as if those differences did not exist as the astronauts and cosmonauts chatted in Russian and English. The rival crews had trained together and the two space agencies shared knowledge and technology. The mission not only symbolised the official end of the space race, it showed that, in space, two apparent enemies could work together.

Fast forward to June 2013 and once again two rivals are in orbit. Only this time, they completely ignore each other. On the International Space Station, six astronauts go about their daily tasks. Meanwhile, in a similar orbit, three Chinese astronauts are working away on a separate space station. Not since the 1960s have two parallel space programmes worked in such total isolation.

So why are things so different now to 40 years ago when Apollo-Soyuz was first conceived by the Nixon administration to foster cooperation in space and help thaw East-West relations? One of the answers is encapsulated in four letters: ITAR – the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. This complex US legislation is designed to prohibit the export of weapons and weapons technology for use by America’s enemies.

This may sound perfectly sensible, but because there are significant overlaps between defence and space, it has had the effect of blocking the sharing of almost all US space technology with China. Not just rockets or satellites but their smallest components. For those who see a space-faring China as a threat, this may seem reasonable. However, it is also proving to be counterproductive. 

After a little borrowing from the Russian space programme to get started, China has shown itself to be quite capable of launching astronauts into orbit without the help of the US. It has since proved it can dock two spacecraft, launch a space station and have astronauts live on that station for more than two weeks.

Far from holding the nation back, the ITAR has galvanised China to develop its own space industry. If it needs help from elsewhere, China can buy components or satellites from Russia or European countries such as the UK, who are quite prepared to share their technology. In fact, not only is China managing without US cooperation, the ITAR means that the US space industry is actually losing business to European competitors. 

Thawing relations

I recently met a group of around 10 Chinese post-graduate engineering students studying space technology on a summer course at the UK’s Open University. These young people form part of the next generation of China’s space industry. I asked them what they made of their country’s advances in space and their thoughts for the future. They all spoke of their pride in seeing Chinese astronauts in orbit, their hopes of seeing a fellow citizen on the Moon and the importance of the space programme for China’s growing confidence as a world power. But, without exception, they also talked of their wish to work cooperatively with other nations in space exploration.

I am not suggesting that the US should share all its technology with China. Although Chinese engineers may be happy to cooperate, the country has a vast security apparatus constantly bombarding the US defence and space industry with cyber-attacks. It also operates military and spy satellites, and is far from open in discussing its space capabilities. However, the truth is that, with European and Russian help, China is going to develop its space programme anyway. And it is hardly short of ambition. While Nasa is developing a mission to capture an asteroid, China has set its sights on a return to the Moon by 2020. It is not hard to guess which will get the most attention.

It seems extraordinary that while the Nasa-branded merchandise on sale in space centre gift shops is made in China, when it comes to space exploration, the US refuses to engage with its Chinese counterparts. Whatever China does in space, America will probably have done it first, so what is the harm in sharing? I’m not calling for a total relaxation of the ITAR but rather a move towards the 21st century equivalent of Apollo-Soyuz. 

Later this month, China will host the 64th International Astronautical Congress in Beijing. This annual event attracts senior space officials and industry figures from all over the world. As well as giving China a chance to show off its space expertise, it provides an opportunity to discuss space exploration in an open forum. The gathering could provide the ideal place to start thawing relations between today’s space superpowers, with European space nations acting as brokers.

Relations between China and the US are nowhere near as strained as those between the US and the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, so why not work towards joint missions? At the very least, both nations could develop a docking capability to rescue each other in orbit. In the long term, combining forces would make humanity’s exploration of the solar system, and missions to the Moon and Mars, quicker, cheaper and more efficient. After all, an international mission to Mars would be far more palatable to American voters than a Chinese one.

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