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Lunar base
It’s a mistake to think that NASA, or American companies, have all the knowledge needed to extract resources from the Moon or asteroids without cooperating with other nations, including China. (credit: NASA)

Prospects for US-China space cooperation


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The Obama Administration has apparently decided that with nothing to lose politically, it intends to make strategic and sometimes bold foreign policy moves before leaving office, in spite of obstructionist roadblocks: normalizing relations with Cuba, negotiating a nuclear treaty with Iran, and talking with the Chinese about space among them. It is ironic that “talking” has become a bold policy move.

– Joan Johnson-Freese in “Found in Space: Cooperation”

Congressman John Culberson, who is opposed to dialogue with China in the peaceful uses of outer space, responded to a request for information from Space Policy Online about the first US-China Civil Space Dialogue held September 28, 2015 in Beijing by affirming his role enabled by the so-called “Wolf Amendment.” He said, “I intend to vigorously enforce the longstanding prohibitions designed to protect America’s space program.” NASA responded to Rep. Culberson that they had acted within the law. However, NASA had not informed him about the meeting and its contents. Clearly, this is a separation of powers issue where the Executive Branch has the responsibility of pursuing foreign policy and does not have to ask permission of the House Appropriations Committee to engage in dialogue with China.

The US State Department, in a statement, described the topics discussed with China:

  • At the inaugural meeting, U.S. and Chinese officials exchanged information on respective space policies. They conducted discussions on further collaboration related to space debris and the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. Both sides also exchanged views on issues related to satellite collision avoidance.
  • The two sides summarized information on national plans related to space exploration and discussed the next multilateral meeting of the International Space Exploration Forum. The two sides discussed ways to cooperate further on civil Earth observation activities, space sciences, space weather, and civil Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).
Rep. Culbertson and his colleagues appear to see the US as so far ahead of all others in space that collaboration offers little benefit and has substantial dangers of theft of American know-how and technology developed at very high cost to the American taxpayer.

The first International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF) was organized by the State Department in January 2014, with the attendance of over 30 countries including several developing countries as well as China. It follows the dialogue begun by the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) in November 2011 in Italy. ISEF was billed as the first ministerial level international conference to promote international collaboration in space exploration and to the application of space science and space technologies to address problems on Earth and to promote economic advancement. William Burns, Deputy Secretary of State at the time, stated in his keynote remarks:

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. I am confident that we will advance further, faster, if we work collectively.

The US-China Civil Space Dialogue can be seen as part of a process of building international collaboration in which the ISEF conference is a point of focus. Japan has agreed to host the next ISEF Conference in 2016 or possibly 2017. No doubt much will depend on continued progress with the US-China Civil Space Dialogue, with the next meeting planned for 2016 in Washington, DC.

The ISEF process indicates that the Obama Administration has a major commitment to space, with the US playing a leadership role in broadening collaboration beyond the established players, notably through engagement with developing countries and China. ISEF points to a major role for international collaboration to advance space exploration and to the application of space technologies to address critical problems on Earth and to accelerate economic advancement.

Rep. Culbertson and his colleagues appear to see the US as so far ahead of all others in space that collaboration offers little benefit and has substantial dangers of theft of American know-how and technology developed at very high cost to the American taxpayer. Perhaps a context from which to view these concerns is the US-USSR collaboration in space. In the early 1960s, President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev seriously contemplated a joint mission to the Moon in part due to the high cost of space. Kennedy’s death, Khrushchev’ s removal from power and intensification of the Vietnam conflict eliminated a joint Moon mission as an option (see “Murdering Apollo: John F. Kennedy and the retreat from the lunar goal (part 2)”, The Space Review, November 6, 2006). However, the Apollo-Soyuz mission followed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, partnership between NASA and Roscosmos expanded and led to the achievement of the International Space Station (ISS), a remarkable achievement in collaboration between the US and Russia involving 16 other international partners. Notwithstanding strained relations between the US and Russia today, collaboration on ISS continues and is expected to be expected to be extended to 2024 and beyond. However, there is no provision to include China in ISS.

What comes next?

By an overwhelming margin, Congress passed the “US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” whose intent is to stimulate commercial space development including mining the Moon and asteroids. This is a major step forward and demonstrates the commitment of the Obama Administration and of Congress to commercial development of space. With the law now in place, the space industry is expected to see the following:

  • Simplification and Improvement in licensing procedures for space launch by private parties;
  • Government support for commercial space development through the renamed Office of Space Commerce, a unit of the US Department of Commerce;
  • Clarification of issues relating to transport of astronauts via commercial crew vehicles;
  • Extension of the life of ISS to 2024 and affirmation of policies regarding governance of the ISS National Laboratory; and
  • Clarification of rights to explore and collect space resources.

While the law entitles the US citizen to “possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law,” it does not confer exclusive rights to do so and, in fact, acknowledges that the provisions of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits this:

SEC. 403. DISCLAIMER OF EXTRATERRITORIAL SOVEREIGNTY It is the sense of Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.

The law’s limitations

Exclusive mining rights will need to be defined within an international regime that governs territory, such as the Moon, to which sovereign rights do not apply under the Outer Space Treaty. Insofar as lunar water has been identified as a possible resource to reduce the costs of reaching Mars, this issue will need to be resolved before the lunar water can be mined. China is among the states that show interest in lunar water.

This legislation cannot guarantee US companies superior technology or exclusive mining rights or use of shared infrastructure in cislunar space that can reduce communications, transportation and operating costs.

No country or company has mined the Moon or an asteroid, or has had industrial operations of any kind in space. Mining technologies may, in fact, be more advanced in countries such as Australia and Canada than in the US. In fact, space mining conferences held in Australia and in Canada have attracted significant attendance by mining companies and the equipment industries that serve them. Notwithstanding the ambitious plans of Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, it is not at all clear that they will possess superior technology for space mining to other potential competitors including from China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, or the EU. No one has yet processed materials in space other than lab-scale experiments. China and India, which have both mounted large-scale industrial projects, may have a body of industrial process know-how that is already competitive with US capabilities to process asteroid or lunar materials into products. There are multiple other aspects of industrial development in space where knowledge and technologies exist somewhere in the world where the US may not have an inherent competitive advantage.

The future that is being created through the new law will create more competitive opportunities for US commercial space companies. But, this legislation cannot guarantee them superior technology or exclusive mining rights or use of shared infrastructure in cislunar space that can reduce communications, transportation and operating costs.

The Wolf Amendment is counter to US national interests

Clearly sensitive technologies need to be protected. But, protecting US intellectual property is not known to be a domain where the House Appropriations Committee of the US Congress has recognized expertise or where it has been invested with any specific authority. Additionally, NASA is a relatively tiny domain in the vast territory of advanced technology under development by the US. The Wolf Amendment, in fact, offers no protection of American technology but instead empowers members of a Congressional committee with no relevant expertise or authority to play a foreign policy role.

Congressman Culbertson clearly recognizes that space technology is key to addressing major challenges facing not only the US, but the entire world community. To bar the United States from participation in global initiatives in the peaceful uses of outer space because China is also involved is, at best, is an overemotional response to the potential for illicit technology transfer with a totally inappropriate instrument.

Far more relevant to US national interests would be for Rep. Culbertson to support developing more effective strategies to advance US commercial interests in space. Otherwise, the Chinese, not bounded by ineffective legislation, will eat our lunch.

No one has yet developed the technologies for ISRU whether on the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, or beyond. Yet ISRU technologies are central to the whole idea of asteroid and lunar mining. If the Chinese can work with everyone else on the planet, but the US can only work with a short list as approved by the Appropriations Committee, it should be expected that the Chinese, drawing on the knowledge base of the entire world, will advance more quickly. We have no lead in ISRU, and our lead in other domains of space technology may not be particularly relevant to this challenge.

It is time for Congress to wake up to the emerging commercial space future and work to fully unleash our commercial space potential rather than complaining about a very high level meeting in Beijing where common challenges in the peaceful uses of outer space were discussed with NASA experts present.

How to enhance American commercial space potential through international collaboration

To fully unleash US (and other participating countries’) commercial space potential, the following challenges need to be addressed:

  • Negotiation of internationally recognized policies to govern commercial activities in space, including mining rights on the Moon and other policies required to conduct commercial activity beyond Earth orbit.
  • Development of technologies that enable cost-effective ISRU operations with the goal to achieve major reductions in costs.
  • Development of infrastructure that contributes to reduced risk and costs of activities in space including communications, energy, logistics, and transport facilities, and potentially other services that enable sustained operations in space at lower cost and risk.
  • Development of sources of financing for space exploration and long-term industrial and commercial development in space that leverage partnership between public and private investment and make possible projects with long planning horizons and extended time to positive cash flow.
  • Development of markets for ISRU production, space manufacturing, and related research and innovation, support services, and commercial activities through public-private partnerships, infrastructure investment by governments, and investment schemes that address value chain development and not just individual products.
  • Build broad public support through global celebration of major space accomplishments like Sputnik, the Apollo Moon landing, the launch of ISS and other events. Open opportunities for research and development not only in existing major spacefaring powers but also for smaller countries and developing countries as well as for universities. Place particular emphasis on opening opportunities for entrepreneurial action by small business. Reach out to schools and communities with opportunities to take part.

The next International Space Exploration Forum planned offers the opportunity to begin to address the international challenges to commercial space development that are shared by all parties. Appropriately, the high-level ISEF conference includes ministerial level participation along with space agencies and related industry and academia. Particularly important will be the participation of China.

China appears to be an excellent potential global partner, together with the US and the EU, to lead a global campaign to open the space frontier to peaceful commercial development for the benefit of all humanity.

China is a country with which the US has very extensive commercial, academic, financial, cultural and strategic ties. GE, IBM, Caterpillar, and numerous other major US corporations have extensive R&D operations in China. But the US has no legacy of collaboration with China in space in space, even dating back to the International Geophysical Year in 1957 where China chose to not participate due to its perception of US meddling. China was not invited to participate in ISS. And the Wolf Amendment seeks to even prevent dialogue with China on the peaceful uses of outer space.

China is both a developing country and a rapidly growing advanced industrial economy with significant financial, industrial, and knowledge resources. China also has a profound understanding of economic development and the role of education, research, innovation, and technology commercialization as evidenced by its sustained, rapid economic development. China appears to be an excellent potential global partner, together with the US and the EU, to lead a global campaign to open the space frontier to peaceful commercial development for the benefit of all humanity.

US-China-EU Strategic Space Partnership

Such a partnership can be founded on the basis of a space development investment bank (SDIB). Recently, China took the lead in the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with a proposed capitalization of $100 billion that includes expressed interest by 57 nations, including primarily developing states in the Asia-Pacific region but also the majority of EU member states. The US, Canada, and Japan have declined to participate in AIIB.

What if the US, the EU, and China worked out a structure for SDIB that would promote accelerated commercial development of space? Capitalized at, say, $100 billion, SDIB could provide the long-term financing for infrastructure such as a lunar power utility whose role would be to supply power initially to exploration activities and, later, to ISRU development. Other projects could include space hubs for transportation, logistics management, refueling, and no doubt tourist and recreational facilities. Insofar as SDIB would fund projects that enable or encourage national space initiatives, the capitalization of the bank would be on call to spend as the investment committee chooses to serve the global interest of advancing development of a robust space economy that brings benefits to all member states. SDIB could leverage funding by governments as well as by private sources of capital.

Funding by itself, however, cannot open the space frontier. Needed are appropriate government policies, enabling technologies, and strategic direction that lead to the development of a growing array of markets for space businesses.

A self-sustaining space economy is one where investment generates positive returns. The breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy would mark a historical inflection point where investment in space is businesses will start to see exponential growth.

Russia, as one of the pioneers in space development, can contribute its extensive capabilities to advance human prospects in space. The European Union, its member states, and the European Space Agency are other vital elements of a global campaign to open the space frontier for all mankind. Japan, the host of the next ISEF conference, has made significant advances in space development and, along with India and South Korea, are vital to the success of an international effort to develop a self-sustaining space economy.

A self-sustaining space economy is one where investment generates positive returns. The breakthrough to a self-sustaining space economy would mark a historical inflection point where investment in space is businesses will start to see exponential growth. Achieving that breakthrough is in the interests of all participating states insofar as that will mark the point at which significant gains in the benefits of space to all of Earth’s people will exceed the investment required to achieve them.

To engage China as a strategic partner in the opening of the space frontier the following actions are needed:

  • The Wolf Amendment needs to be annulled.
  • The Administration needs to take steps to engage China in space collaboration. In the longer term this would include measures such as the Space Development Investment Bank. Immediate steps would include collaboration on remote sensing for disaster relief, space debris research, and space situation awareness. Appropriate steps in the intermediate term would include measures such as opening ISS and its successor facilities to China.
  • The International Lunar Decade could provide a unifying framework for international collaboration in space development through 2030.

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