Whether the United States and its partners in the

International Space Station program will get their money’s worth out of the $100 billion endeavor is still to be determined, but there’s one point even the skeptics

concede: it’s been a tremendous opportunity for very diverse cultures to learn

to work together. Question brewing around the political stew these days is

whether to add China into the mix.

In a joint statement released in Beijing this week, the

United States and China said they “look forward to expanding discussions on

space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and

space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and

mutual benefit.”

“Both sides welcome reciprocal visits of the NASA administrator and the appropriate

Chinese counterpart in 2010,” the statement added.

While no specific mention of the space station was made,there is precedence for using the outpost as a tool of foreign policy. In the wake of the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement in 1991 for the first joint U.S. – Russian space mission since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz orbital linkup. The countries eventually committed to an astronaut exchange program and decided the U.S. would build two modules and a shuttle docking port for the Mir space station.

That pact led to a series of missions that put seven U.S.

astronauts aboard Mir as crewmembers and nine cosmonauts into seats on the

space shuttles. The partnership was severely tested during two potential disasters

in space — a February 1997 fire on Mir and a crash, just four months later, of

a Russian Progress cargo ship into the station’s U.S. Spektre module.

In addition to providing funds to Russia, the partnership

gave the space shuttles a destination in orbit for the first time. It proved a

fertile and robust enough collaboration for Russia and the U.S. to team up as

project leaders in the new international outpost, which is scheduled to be

completed next year after five more missions by the space shuttles. NASA’s

funding for the project, however, runs just through 2015.  The Obama administration, which is in the midst of reviewing the U.S. human space program, is considering an advisory panel’s recommendations to extend the station to at least 2020.

That could leave a seat for China, which is the only other

country besides the U.S. and Russia that has managed to put people into orbit. China

has flown three manned missions since 2003 and successfully staged a spacewalk

during its most recent flight in 2008.

Whether the U.S. and China will test the waters with an

astronaut exchange program remains up in the air, but during a briefing with reporters in Japan this week, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, himself a former

astronaut, told AFP a U.S.-Chinese partnership could be fruitful for both


“I am perfectly willing, if that’s the direction that

comes to me, to engage the Chinese in trying to make them a partner in any

space endeavor,” AFP quoted Bolden as saying.

“They have demonstrated their capability to do

something that only two other nations that have done, that is, to put humans in

space,” Bolden said. “That is an achievement you cannot ignore.”

(Cosmonauts, astronauts together in orbit during the first space shuttle docking at Mir. Credit: NASA)