To push mankind deeper and deeper into space, more expensive and ambitious missions are needed. Therefore, international collaboration is sought after to share the load. For NASA, however, China won’t be a part of any joint scientific endeavor for the next fiscal year, at least.
As noted by Forbes blogger William Pentland last week, and reported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Science Insider blog in April, a clause included in the U.S. spending bill approved by Congress to avert a government shutdown a few weeks ago has prohibited NASA from coordinating any joint scientific activity with China. The clause also extends to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
The short two sentence clause was included by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) to prevent NASA and OSTP from using federal funds “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.” This clause would also prevent NASA facilities from hosting “official Chinese visitors.”
Wolf, a long-time critic of the Chinese government, chairs a House spending committee that oversees several science agencies.
This clause comes at a time of heightened tensions surrounding accusations of cyber-attacks and espionage from the People’s Republic of China on U.S. Government agencies and U.S. companies. Wolf’s office computers were hacked in 2006 and the FBI confirmed the hacking source was located in China, so he has personal experience of this vulnerability.
In an interview with Science Insider, Wolf robustly stated his position on the matter:
“We don’t want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them. And frankly, it boils down to a moral issue. … Would you have a bilateral program with Stalin? [...] China is spying against us, and every U.S. government agency has been hit by cyber-attacks. They are stealing technology from every major U.S. company. They have taken technology from NASA, and they have hit the NSF computers … You name the company, and the Chinese are trying to get its secrets.”
These are obviously strong words, and the clause is bound to put a dent in Sino-American relations.
China has already shown the world its space aspirations, although its direction hasn’t always been clear. In 2008, the communist nation carried out its first ever spacewalk — despite a botched script and allegations of conspiracy — joining the U.S. and Russia as the only 3 nations having performed the feat.
Most recently, the Chinese space agency announced plans for a Chinese space station, and later this year the nation will attempt an in-orbit unmanned rendezvous, a first step toward the space station goal.
Although there’s unlikely to be a “Space Race” (reminiscent of the 1960′s) between the U.S. and China in the immediate future, and both nations don’t cooperate closely on space missions, could blocking the exchange of science increase distrust and tensions in space? That remains to be seen.
Image: The launch of China’s first manned space flight at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwestern province of Gansu in 2003. The Long March CZ-2F rocket carrying China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei lifted off from the Gobi Desert (China Photo/Reuters/Corbis)