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June 11, 2013

Could US Work with China on Space Issues?

by William Gallo

As China's space program rapidly advances, many are debating whether the United States should consider unprecedented cooperation with Beijing on space science and exploration missions.

The topic is controversial in Washington, where many fear the rise of China's space program, which is controlled by the People's Liberation Army, may eventually pose a military threat.

China's space program has made remarkable progress in a relatively short period. Just 10 years after launching its first manned space mission, it has already begun preparations for building its own space station, which it plans to complete by 2020.

It has also made quick progress on a homegrown satellite navigation system, known as Beidu, that could challenge the U.S.-created Global Positioning System (GPS) and become crucial to the overall modernization of China's armed forces.

Despite the progress, analysts say Beijing's space program is still decades behind that of the United States, as well as Russia, in terms of technology and experience. Ken Dewoskin is with Deloitte's China Research and Insight Center in Beijing. He said NASA may be reluctant to help China make up that gap by sharing American technology and know-how.

"[U.S. cooperation] would accelerate their technology tremendously, it would pull them ahead decades, which is one reason possibly that it's very difficult to negotiate," said Dewoskin.

Dewoskin said while China is relatively straightforward about its grand space ambitions, it has been very opaque about the military aspect of those goals. "Lurking behind the visible and very widely celebrated space achievements [are] the military issues and capabilities, especially surveillance and possibly even space-based weaponry," he stated.

Mike Wall, a senior writer at Space said in an interview that much of the technology that would be shared under such a partnership could have military, not only civilian uses. "The United States' leadership on the battlefield for so many decades has been primarily the result of our space supremacy. We have so many good space assets, satellite networks and so on," said Wall.

Wall said another problem holding back U.S.-China cooperation on space is the U.S. Congress, which has placed tough restrictions on cooperation between NASA and China's space program. "There are more than a few people in Congress who are a little bit worried that if the U.S. cooperates with China, what they will do with that information," he added.

But others point out there may be benefits to U.S.-China space cooperation. One of those people is NASA chief Charles Bolden, who has said that "some level of engagement" could be helpful to both countries.

Even though the United States may not agree to large-scale cooperation, such as bringing China into the International Space Station program, some say more limited projects, such as space debris cleanup, could be a good start.

Wall said there will always be room for Beijing and Washington to work together in space. "Space is a big place and it's expensive to explore it. And if we're going to actually explore space as a species and push out into the solar system, it's not like there's just one country that's going to be able to do it effectively," he said.

Victor Beattie also contributed to this report.