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Room in the Stars: Sino-American Cooperation in Outer Space

By: Ishani Chettri

The following article is the foundation for our Youth Exposition on US-China Space Policy. More information on the event can be found here

Heard about the new “Space Race”? If you haven’t, it basically refers to a rising rivalry in outer space between the United States and China. The two nations are racing to develop technological innovations with an eye towards controlling the final frontier of great power competition. But the term “Space Race” isn’t new, as it was first used during the Cold War era to depict the competition for space exploration between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the launch of the first-ever satellite Sputnik in 1957 to the illustrious Apollo 11 mission that put an American man on the Moon in 1969, the urgency for space exploration, innovation, and dominance were the United States’ and USSR’s top national priorities. 

But can the same urgency for influence and power in space be applied to the United States and China? Is the new “Space Race” just another name for the pair’s rivalry, or can the stars be a new frontier for Sino-American cooperation? Let’s look into what policy and experts have to say. 

Ever wondered why the International Space Station never hosted Chinese taikonauts? Then, let me tell you about a decade-old U.S. policy that’s the basis for China’s exclusion. Known as the Wolf Amendment, Congress banned NASA from using government funds to directly collaborate with the Chinese government or Chinese-owned companies unless they receive approval from the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Congress itself. The policy passed in 2011 and was specifically designed to prevent accidental transfers of technological data with China since the nation was testing military weaponry in space, like anti-satellite missile tests, at the time. It’s one of the major factors as to why, for over a decade now, international cooperation between the two nations on space-related endeavors has been almost nonexistent. 

While the Wolf Amendment does bar cooperation between the two nations’ space exploration efforts to an extent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the United States and China will never work together in space. In 2019, Congress allowed NASA scientists to use the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to help out the China National Space Administration (CNSA) with Chang’e 4 — a robotic spacecraft mission that successfully landed a rover and a lander on the far side of the Moon. This endeavor made China the first country to achieve a soft landing on the lunar far side and marked NASA’s first collaboration with Beijing since the 2011 Congressional ban. It also brought forth the announcement that China will allow NASA to use Chang’e 4 spacecraft in future lunar missions. Still, the perceived and real national security and technological theft risks of a Sino-American joint space effort still hamper even modest cooperative initiatives. 

So can we expect more collaboration in the future? Well, that depends on how United States and Chinese officials navigate upcoming missions and projects within the pair’s geopolitical environment. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson explained how cooperation with the Eastern country is entirely up to their discretion, and that CNSA hasn’t furthered its communication with NASA concerning ongoing orbits of Mars spacecraft at the International Astronautical Congress earlier in September. 

However, talk of cooperation isn’t expected to go away anytime soon as both NASA and CNSA are actively pursuing lunar exploration programs — NASA with the Artemis Program and CNSA with the Chang’e Project. The Chang’e 7 mission — an uncrewed, robotic spacecraft mission — is expected to launch in 2024, while NASA predicts a late 2025 launch for the Artemis 3 crewed mission. Both agencies actually identified potential landing sites for each program that may overlap one another at the South Pole of the Moon. But overlapping landing zones aren’t a complete surprise as space agencies require good lighting conditions for potential launch windows, and close proximity to permanently shadowed craters for mining water-ice deposits. Still, continued geopolitical tensions may cause either space agency to change its respective mission sites’ locations, possibly deterring future joint space exploration efforts.

But don’t forget about Mars! Despite the emphasis on lunar exploration — and lunar return for the United States — Mars is another area of planetary exploration that NASA and CNSA have been working on within the past couple of years. Back in early 2021, the CNSA and NASA held meetings and communications to exchange orbital data that can ensure the flight safety of Mars spacecraft. NASA requested to speak with the CNSA about its Tianwen-1 Mars probe and its orbit pattern so they could reduce the risk of collision with other orbiting spacecraft around Mars. The American space agency also coordinated with other international space agencies like the European Space Agency and the Indian Space Research Organization to secure the management of various ongoing Mars missions. 

As NASA and CNSA embark on furthering space exploration in the coming years, there is discussion as to whether Congress should rescind the Wolf Amendment. However, Congress has no plans to do so at the moment, forcing experts and space agencies to continue their exploration of new methods and goals for collaboration within the current restrictive framework. As space agencies team up with one another to analyze the vast unknown in the later part of the decade, hope for more Sino-American space collaboration remains. But until then, keep an eye on the technological progression of NASA and CNSA exploration happening beyond our atmosphere. 

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