China, Shenzhou, and the ISS
by Jeff Foust
|After Shenzhou 5 “there will be a window of opportunity to bring China aboard” the ISS, Hays said.|
That was the question examined by a number of experts during a panel on US, European, and Chinese strategic policies in space, held October 14 in Arlington, Virginia, and organized by the Homeplanet Defense Institute. While much of the discussion focused on issues such as Chinese attempts to draft a treaty to ban weapons in space, a bid to block American plans for a missile defense system, some panelists also discussed what role, if any, China could play on the ISS.
“I believe that after they are successful in having a manned orbital flight, there will be a window of opportunity to bring China aboard” the ISS, said Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Hays, executive editor of Joint Force Quarterly: A Professional Military Journal. Hays, who noted that he was speaking only for himself, said that he thought the opportunity didn’t exist before the launch “because of their own internal domestic reasons.”
“I believe that the [Chinese] manned space program is primarily aimed at getting prestige in the international community,” said Theresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information. “China wants to join the International Space Station.”
While the US has been cool to the idea of adding China to the ISS project, Hitchens noted that bringing the Chinese into the project could be advantageous in a number of ways. “If you bring China into the ISS,” she said, “the United States will have a little more transparency about their capabilities, their programs, what they want to do.”
Adding partners to the ISS project for geopolitical reasons is not without precedent, Hays noted. “At least initially the Russians were brought on board as a counterproliferation measure,” he said. “Russia would live up to the Missile Technology Control Regime and other counterproliferation measures, and have their aerospace engineers employed on a more benign venture, like the space station.”
Besides the geopolitical issues, there may be pragmatic reasons for adding the Chinese to the ISS. “They have technical capabilities to bring to the table,” Hitchens said. “With the current issue with the shuttle, adding backup vehicles for bringing astronauts up and down from the station might not be a bad idea.”
|“If you bring China into the ISS,” Hitchens said, “the United States will have a little more transparency about their capabilities, their programs, what they want to do.”|
While there may be a number of good reasons for adding China to the ISS project, there are a number of barriers as well. Hays believes that convincing China to join could be a bigger obstacle than convincing the US and the other existing international partners. “My perception is that the resistance is more on the part of the Chinese at this point than it is on the part of the space station partners,” he said, basing his comments on conversations he said he’s had with people in NASA’s international programs office.
“China still has issues internally about where they are going,” said Hitchens, noting that the People’s Liberation Army runs the Chinese space program.
If the US and the other partners decided they wanted to bring include China, there would still be problems to address on the US side. “The biggest challenge to bringing the Chinese on board the ISS will be dealing with elements of the US government—the State Department, the DoD—on Chinese nonproliferation issues,” said Hays.
Hays also believed that timing was a key issue. “The window of opportunity [after Shenzhou 5] may close the further downstream the Chinese go” if they believe they will gain greater prestige benefits by going it alone, he suggested. “The United States and the world spaceflight community needs to seize this opportunity pretty quickly.”
As the panel session was wrapping up in Arlington on the evening of the 14th, halfway around the world a Long March 2F rocket was lifting off from Jiuquan, carrying Yang Liwei aboard Shenzhou 5. If there is indeed a window of opportunity for adding China to the International Space Station, then that window is now open.