The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Shenzhou illustration
China could make a number of contributions to both the ISS and future space exploration plans. (credit: CNSA)

China and India want to play

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in September that he believes that China will beat NASA back to the Moon. China, meanwhile, has stated their desire to take part in the ISS project, just before China went ballistic over Congress honoring the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal and his meeting with President Bush. There have also been recent media reports that India was trying to get Russia’s help to become a member of the ISS project (which India has since denied). NASA has no plans to fund the ISS beyond 2015. To say that foreign relations and NASA’s involvement in them can get messy is an understatement.

I believe that Michael Griffin’s comment is a carefully planned statement to scare Congress into maintaining progress on the Constellation program. I think that he fears that the push to the Moon will not be maintained by Congress and the next administration. I suspect he’s trying to scare politicians with the thought that China could beat us back to what was once our exclusive domain. He’s also probably betting that the natural competitiveness of Americans will keep our eyes on the prize.

India has a steadily advancing space program. It is only natural that they would want to be considered a major player. I would not be surprised at all if the story that they wanted Russia to help them become a member of the ISS project was indeed a trial balloon. They more than likely wanted to see the reaction of the existing members before they made a formal request to join. Without ratification of the new US-Indian nuclear energy pact by the Indian parliament, which is in question, it is unlikely that the US government would agree to add India to the ISS project in the near term.

To say that foreign relations and NASA’s involvement in them can get messy is an understatement.

It is kind of ironic that the movie Seven Years in Tibet was being broadcast when I was working on this article. It is an outstanding movie that tells part of the story why the US government isn’t thrilled with the way the Chinese government has treated the people of Tibet. The Chinese government has stated its displeasure with the US honoring the Dalai Lama. After Mao’s forces defeated the Nationalist army that fled to Taiwan, Mao stated that it was the goal of Communist China to reunite all the lost territories of China. They consider the Dalai Lama to be a traitor to China for objecting to the takeover of Tibet by China. China is mad that Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama. China is mad that Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with the Dalai Lama and that Canada made him an honorary Canadian citizen. These are the kind of issues that will be part of the discussion on NASA and its mission the more the world globalizes how every thing from business to research and exploration is done.

Tensions with Russia are growing as Russia tries to reassert itself as a world power. Russia has restarted flights of bombers to probe the edges of Western airspace. They are rebuilding their military. They use their supplies of natural gas as a heavy-handed lever to get their way with Europe and former Soviet states. Russia objects heavily to the US antimissile system being planned for installation in Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic is upset that the US even offered Russia the option of placing observers into the proposed ABM radar site to be based in the Czech Republic to prove that the site is no threat to Russia. With the shuttle retiring in a few years, we will have to fully depend on Russia for access to the ISS until either a COTS solution is working or the Orion capsule is flying.

Another question about China and India joining the ISS project is what could they contribute if they become members? Neither is in position to build and add a new segment. Neither is yet in a position to fly people to and from it. China has not yet demonstrated the ability to dock manned vessels in space. Without a proven docking capability neither could deliver cargo. So what can they contribute? And what would they gain? What would we gain?

Both India and China have massive energy needs that are growing by leaps and bounds. According to a report on PBS’ Nightly Business Report there are in excess of 100 new coal fired power plants on the drawing boards (more likely CAD screens) in the US alone. The burning of coal on the scale done in the US and these emerging economies is dumping millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere along with soot, radium, mercury, sulfur, and other pollutants. We have a common problem. Maybe a common solution is the answer.

The recently-released study on Space Based Solar Power suggested that the first tests could be done on the ISS tapping the solar arrays for a few kilowatts and transmitting them to Earth. This might be an area worth inviting India and China in. While such tests can be performed with a small rectenna on the ground, the problem is that the ISS infrequently flies over the same spot on the ground so that it could only test a microwave power beam in short, infrequent bursts. With small test rectennas in China, India, and other countries that are interested in the technology, the needed quantity of test data could be collected several times faster. An interesting but doable challenge will be to aim the beam from the ISS and keep it on the rectenna target for the short interval—one to five minutes—when the ISS will be in line of sight with a spot on the ground. It is a technical challenge not unlike keeping the beam of the Airborne Laser on target.

The recently-released study on Space Based Solar Power suggested that the first tests could be done on the ISS tapping the solar arrays for a few kilowatts and transmitting them to Earth. This might be an area worth inviting India and China in.

NASA talks about international partnerships on the return to the Moon. I think there are several people with long memories within NASA about the delays and problems in the early days of the ISS program after Russia was invited to join. Because of that I suspect they do not want any foreign partners responsible for critical path elements. Since all the critical path items in the return to the Moon are going to US contractors, one might ask what significant contribution an international partner could make. There are several. As passenger, cargo, and robotic probe traffic increases throughout cislunar space, the need for always-on high-bandwidth communications channels will increase. A system that extends communications to the Moon using proposed “Interplanetary Internet” protocols might be an ideal place for cooperation. It could be a better place for Europe to spend its money instead of on an unneeded backup to the GPS and GLONASS navigation systems. Inviting several international partners in to create a robust, fault-tolerant, interplanetary communications system to share the cost of communicating with the increasing number of assets beyond Earth orbit only makes sense. It would be just like multiple Earth-based providers increasing the paths of the Internet backbone.

The lunar surface infrastructure can be built up much faster if international partners are involved. We will need solar power systems, mobility systems, portable science labs, extra habitats, in-situ resources extraction systems, and a whole slew of other components needed to create a robust lunar base. There are many areas where NASA can use help that are not in the critical path for success, but can enhance what can be accomplished.

I personally don’t believe that China will even attempt to put humans on the Moon on their own. The word coming out of China—and since denied by the Xinhua news agency—that their goal is to have a space station in orbit by 2020 is evidence that putting people on the Moon in the same timeframe as NASA’s is unrealistic. China is going to be forced to divert resources to other problems that are fast approaching. The air quality throughout China, including Beijing, is steadily deteriorating to the point where contingencies for delaying events at next summer’s Olympics are being planned in case of bad air quality days. Their growth rate for energy production is just not sustainable unless significant resources are poured into cleaner power production. Their cancer rates are climbing rapidly due to minimal efforts in environmental protection. China wants to be a major player in space, but they are going to be forced to make hard choices on the allocation of resources as they choke their environment. Taking part in a US-led mission to the Moon would allow them to be a major player without the large scale spending and diversion of technical talent and resources they would have to do if they were to do it on their own.

Outside of the sharing of expenses and possible faster results, there are reasons that the US might want to include a number of foreign partners. Bringing Russia and India into the ISS project and inviting them and others to take part in the return to the Moon is another way to improve relations and build trust. In a world that is increasingly in need of global solutions, that is a significant factor to consider. The next question is, will international partners be insulted if they aren’t trusted enough to handle a critical path element in the return to the Moon?

There have been problems having Russia as part of the ISS project, but there have been definite pluses. The ISS would more than likely have to have been abandoned following the Columbia disaster if Russia hadn’t been a partner. Bringing partners into the Moon project could over time add a similar robustness to that program. While I don’t think NASA will give up control of the critical path items, foreign participation could start small and grow as trust is built in capabilities and in political support over time.

Some people object to China’s inclusion in projects like this because of their record on human rights, how they deal with Taiwan, their lack of democracy and freedom, and a host of other issues. Isolating countries and placing sanctions on them has for the most part not worked. Sanctions on Cuba still haven’t ended Castro’s rule. Sanctions on Burma have not ended the repressive rule there. Sanctions on Iraq did nothing to deter Saddam Hussein prior to a large army massing on his border. While I agree that China does many things people in the West do not approve of, it is hard to argue that there haven’t been significant improvements. I’ve never been to China, but I’ve talked to a number of people who do business there. I’ve had a chance to talk to Chinese students studying here. All have told me of the improvements they’ve witnessed. They’ve also told me about some of the problems and the setbacks.

China and India want to play and it may be time to let them. It may also be a chance to put a price tag on joining the club.

When Ronald Reagan was working out arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, he said, “Trust but verify.” According to Xinhua, Hu Jintao outlined “China’s goals for economic, political and social developments, as well as the nation’s position on the world stage” at the 17th CPC National Congress. The goals sound like things that will over time overcome some of the major objections people have about China’s behavior. Time will tell if they are sincere in obtaining these goals. Engaging China with small scale projects on the ISS would be a way to start building trust before even considering inclusion in the Moon project.

Many people in China remember the help we provided them during World War 2 with the Flying Tigers preventing Japan from overrunning the Nationalist Army. People here remember the Chinese government crushing the protest at Tiananmen Square. World standards on product safety are beginning to have an impact on China and how they improve their standards in product safety, environmental standards, and business ethics. They have a long way to go. Business contacts, tourist contacts, and contacts between people at NASA and the China National Space Administration can help keep things moving in the right direction.

China and India want to play and it may be time to let them. It may also be a chance to put a price tag on joining the club. At each stage, a price like requiring China to make their military spending and intentions more transparent to an increasingly nervous world could be a start. Another price for increasing the level of partition could be that they stop censoring Internet access. It would be interesting to see what China would be willing to agree to in order to take part in such a high profile international project.