China — which until now has worked alone as it pursues an ambitious space program — seems more open to international cooperation, especially with the US, European and US experts say.
“There is a change in the Chinese attitude, with a call for cooperation in space. And Americans are not reticent — on the contrary,” French space agency CNES’ president Jean-Yves Le Gall said.
Le Gall spoke on Thursday last week as he left a meeting in Washington of high-level envoys from 30 spacefaring nations discussing ways to pool efforts to explore the stars. The conference continued on Friday with space agency heads.
The space race started as an intense Cold War competition between the US and the former Soviet Union. However, with budgets shrinking, the US is relying more on private companies and looking to keep costs down with multinational collaborations — and other countries that are emerging as future major players in space.
The participants at the conference, which included Brazil, China, India, Japan and Russia, “showed a strong desire for coming together” in space exploration activities, Le Gall said, adding that the Chinese showed up in force, with a large delegation.
“The big question for the next three years is whether China will join the International Space Station [ISS],” which currently includes the US, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada, he said.
“That’s the challenge,” Le Gall said, adding that the US had just extended the orbiting space lab’s mission by at least four years, to 2024.
John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a NASA consultant, shared Le Gall’s sentiment.
He said that China has recently indicated its willingness to participate in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, which currently has 14 members, including NASA.
Beijing has also openly invited other countries to join it in its own ambitious project that aims to put a Chinese space station into orbit within 10 years.
“Every indication is that China is eager to become part of the inner circle of space countries, rather than going its own path,” Logsdon said.
He said it was surprising that China, which along with the US and Russia is one of three countries in the world “that knows how to put people in space,” was not “directly involved in things like the International Space Station.”
Logsdon said it was “very possible” that China would be invited within the next two or three years to join some activities aboard the ISS, although he said it was likely to be part of a broader initiative that could also include Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.
The expert said that NASA was still not authorized by the US Congress to work with China, because several lawmakers consider it a risk to the US’ national security.
However, if the European Space Agency were to issue an invitation to China to participate in the ISS partnership, NASA would not be required to oppose it, Logsdon said.
“We have seen a strong willingness among the different space agencies of the world to increase global cooperation in space exploration,” he added.
So far it’s just “rhetoric,” he said, “but it is a step toward reality.”
Le Gall was equally cautious, but he said the environment was conducive to increased cooperation.
“Paradoxically, the spacefaring nations that are in the forefront” — including the US and Europe — “don’t have any more money, while those that have the ambition to get there and be recognized, like China, have money,” he said.