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.