US space officials will get a peek behind the closely guarded doors of China's space program next week during a visit that many believe is more about diplomacy than cooperation in technology.
US President George W. Bush asked NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to go to China last spring, following a visit from Chinese President Hu Jintao (
"This is a get-acquainted session and it's nothing more," Griffin said earlier this week.
The US has never had significant space discussions with China, although both countries, along with Russia, are the only nations that can launch people into orbit.
The chief obstacle to more space cooperation has been the military influence over China's space program. The military's presence proved dicey for some US firms that tried to work with the Chinese in the late 1990s and early 2000s on launching satellites. They were accused by the US government of giving the Chinese satellite and rocket technology that could be used for intercontinental missiles.
NASA says there will not likely be space cooperation agreements with China like the one the US space agency produced from Griffin's visit to India in May. The US space agency has multiple agreements with other spacefaring nations, most notably Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan in building and operating the international space station.
The only areas where the US and China might work together are in exchanging data on earth science, managing the radio frequency spectrum, and controlling orbital debris, one NASA official suggested.
Some experts, though, doubt the US would gain much from cooperating with China in space, especially since the US program is so much more advanced.
James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, described the NASA visit as merely a "goodie bag" offered by Bush during Hu's visit.
"Talking is swell ... as long as we get something in exchange other than that warm, fuzzy glow of knowing we're all friends," Lewis said. "I don't know what we get out of cooperation with the Chinese. I know what they get out of it -- they get prestige. Maybe they get a little help with technology and spaceflight."
But Eligar Sadeh, a professor of space studies at the University of North Dakota, said there are always benefits from international cooperation and points to US-Russia space cooperation as an example. During the two-and-a-half years that NASA's shuttle fleet was grounded after the Columbia disaster in 2003, the US relied on the Russian Soyuz vehicle to ferry US astronauts to the space station.
NASA's involvement in the space station program "probably would have been imperiled, if not outright terminated, had it not been for the Russian involvement," Sadeh said.
In a July interview, Griffin described the trip as the first steps toward a more "routine relationship" with China.
"China is a strategic nation in this world," Griffin said. "If they have reached the point where they're beginning to undertake significant activities in space flight, I think it's only to our benefit to explore those possibilities with them."