Space exploration officials from more than 30 countries met in Washington, D.C. recently to discuss how to advance the exploration and utilization of space. The meeting was organized by the U.S. State Department which, for the first time, invited officials from China's space agency, highlighting the possibility of cooperation in space exploration.
Cooperation between the U.S. space agency, NASA, and China's space agency was banned by Congress in 2011. However, signs are emerging that this policy may change.
At the International Space Exploration Forum, held January 9, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns invited all countries to participate in space exploration.
“Now is the time to come together to make space exploration a shared global priority, to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and to accelerate human progress here on Earth,” said Burns.
Xu Dazhe, head of the China's National Space Administration, attended the meeting. China Daily quoted Dazhe as saying his participation was a signal that China is willing to cooperate with other countries in exploring space.
Scott Pace, who heads the Space Policy Institute and is a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, said the Chinese were specifically invited to be part of the international discussion, but warned against excessive optimism.
“There really hasn’t been a political breakthrough that would then lead to large, symbolic, direct cooperative activity. There are, however a number of small opportunities that I think we can and should be able to pursue,” said Pace.
Pace pointed out that during the Cold War, the U.S. cooperated with the Soviet Union on some aspects of space exploration.
“It was in very specific scientific areas: earth science, solar physics, some biometrical data. And I think similar levels of cooperation can certainly occur with China today, and probably should,” Pace continued.
Also present at the meeting were countries not usually associated with space exploration - like Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
Pace said many countries use space for practical purposes, such as navigation or communications, but they should now be more ambitious.
“The moon is emerging, I think, as a consensus technical focus, because it provides opportunities for countries at all levels of space development - from the very largest to very modest,” said Pace.
Because the Space Station is an international facility and its operational life has been extended until 2024, Pace said China may be invited to participate in experiments on board.
The next place where one might see cooperation with China would be on the moon, given that missions to Mars or asteroids are too difficult and expensive, even for the U.S. and Russia.