NASA Hails China Space Travel As 'Unifying Force,' But U.S. Law Bans Alliance

There's a new major player in the final frontier, but the United States' space agency under President Joe Biden sees an upside to its top competitor's success, even if U.S. scientists remain formally banned from cooperating with their Chinese counterparts.

For decades, the realm of outer space travel was dominated by the U.S. and Russia, a reality set by their Cold War-era space race that ultimately helped fuel historic developments now also being advanced by a range of countries across the globe, including in Europe, India, Israel, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

No country's rapid rise has grabbed as much global attention, however, as that of China, whose accelerated ascendance into space mirrors its lightning growth back on Earth. Beijing's expanding economic, political and military influence has led to a significant deterioration of its relationship with Washington, which has enjoyed unmatched superpower status since the fall of the Soviet Union.

As China celebrates the landmark launch of the first module to its planned space station, NASA is welcoming the strides made by its Chinese counterpart, viewing them as a mutual gain for all of mankind in spite of the terrestrial tensions between the two top powers.

"NASA uses space and science as a unifying force," the agency said in a statement sent to Newsweek. "Exploration is a global endeavor, each milestone contributing to humanity's understanding of the universe, and we look forward to China's contributions to increased scientific understanding."

china, space, station, rendering
A rendering of China's planned Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) large modular space station is seen as published by the China Manned Space Engineering Office. On April 29, China successfully launched the first and central module to its planned space station, making it currently only the second such operational facility alongside the International Space Station, which is jointly managed by the U.S., Russia, European Union, Canada and Japan. China Manned Space Engineering Office

China's planned Tiangong (Heavenly Palace) large modular space station came closer to reality over the weekend in the southern island Hainan province where a massive 18-story LongMarch 5B rocket roared out of the atmosphere, successfully bringing the Tianhe (Harmony of the Heavens) core cabin module into orbit. Citizens waving national flags cheered on and the Xi'an Symphony Orchestra performed.

In a statement released Tuesday, the People's Liberation Army China Manned Space Engineering Office hailed the launch as an inauguration of "the third step" of the country's human space exploration campaign. The first was to send an astronaut—or in China's case, a taikonaut—to and from space safely as the country did in 2003, and the second to conduct extravehicular activity and orbital docking, tasks accomplished in 2008 and 2011, respectively.

Many of China's accomplishments replicated the space feats of Earth's first space explorers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That was the case when the Chang'e 5 lunar orbiter, lander and sample collection return vehicle was launched to gather soil from the moon late last year.

Then China took the mission a step further by planting a flag on the moon, making it only the second country to do so, after the U.S. Apollo program half a century ago. China has also set its own firsts, sending the Chang'e 4 to land on the yet untouched far side of the moon in 2019.

Now, after having launched two temporary space labs, China has fielded what is currently one of only two operational space stations, the other being the International Space Station (ISS), first launched in 1998. The ISS today hosts personnel from the U.S., Russia, the European Union, Canada and Japan.

But Chinese personnel are banned from ISS by an amendment to NASA's budget passed by Congress 10 years ago, which was made in response to allegations that China engaged in intellectual property theft, and was using its knowledge from multilateral space cooperation to shore up its intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Concerns about China's practices linger among U.S. policymakers, as evidenced by remarks made last month by former Florida Senator Bill Nelson when asked for his position on the matter during his nomination hearing to head NASA, a role for which he was sworn in on Monday.

"There is a threat China poses in basically getting a lot of our secrets and getting a lot of our technology and invading a lot of our privacy," Nelson told the Senate Commerce Committee at the time. "Now when you take that global concern and bring it to the space program, then you have to be concerned about the same thing."

But Nelson warned that not everyone shared his trepidation.

He noted that U.S. space rival-turned-partner Russia has increasingly shored up its strategic partnership with China to include collaboration in this field, and told lawmakers "you'd better be concerned" about this emerging union, and pointed to one ambitious project in particular.

China and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding in March to team up in pursuit of establishing an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), a scientific base either on or orbiting the moon. Last week, the China National Space Administration and Russia's Roscosmos announced they were opening the plan up for "possible involvement of other countries, international organizations and other international partners."

In order to participate in either the ILRS or China's Tiangong space station, NASA would need to seek specific approval from the FBI. But Tiangong is attracting other interested parties, including the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which already has nine projects lined up for the world's newest space station.

UNOOSA Director Simonetta Di Pippo told Newsweek why such international cooperation, not just among the U.S., Russia and China but also all the full range of current and prospective space-faring nations, was so crucial.

"Space endeavors have in fact shown us that, when humanity works together on common goals, we can achieve what seemed previously impossible," Di Poppo said. "Space will always challenge us to leave our comfort zone and realize the possibilities of tomorrow. Conducting a spacewalk or performing scientific lunar research demand the very best of what humanity has to offer, and for this we need to join forces."

She highlighted the past success demonstrated by collaboratives works such as the ISS, which she described as "one of the greatest examples of international cooperation in the history of humanity."

And though Di Poppo acknowledged the inevitability of competition among nations, she noted that this "has been an important ingredient to drive innovation and advancements," and hoped that "in the future, nations will compete to share their space knowledge data and applications for the benefit of all humankind."

To encourage such cooperative efforts, UNOOSA established a forum called the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 1959, in the wake of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, Earth's first-ever artificial satellite and the catalyst for the 20th-century space race. Today, the committee is comprised of 95 U.N. member states, including all countries that have conducted orbital launches, with the exception of North Korea.

COPUOS already includes key pacts restricting military activities in outer space, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but the dawn of new technologies such as anti-satellite weapons has prompted efforts to establish further commitments. China and Russia, in particular, have petitioned for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, however, the U.S. has repeatedly vetoed such a measure.

As a result, the treaty that predates the first man walking on the moon continues to set the rules for non-military use in space. UNOOSA, for its part, "works to continue advancing international cooperation for the peaceful uses of outer space in the future," Di Poppi said.

The U.N. office also strives to break down existing barriers to space-related cooperation among nations with its Access to Space for All Initiative, "which includes projects through which we partner with space agencies who agree to open up their technology for researchers from all over the world to conduct experiments in space conditions or develop and deploy a satellite," she said. It includes planned work with both the ISS and Tiangong.

"We are confident that, in future decades, humanity will achieve impressive frontiers in space exploration," Di Poppi said. "However, to realize our full potential and leverage all the benefits that space has to offer, we need to work together and multiply value. With a strong United Nations bringing space actors together and facilitating international cooperation in space activities, we can create virtuous collaborations and grow our ambitions to previously unimaginable frontiers."

deke, slayton, alexei, leonov, apollo, soyuz
U.S. astronaut Daniel "Deke" Slayton meets Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov as their respective spacecrafts, the Apollo and the Soyuz, conduct the first international space rendezvous on July 17, 1975, a date widely seen as having ended the space race of the Cold War. Chinese officials today often accused the U.S. of harboring a "Cold War mentality" against the People's Republic, now Washington's top global competitor. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

These sentiments were echoed by Richard Cooper, vice president of the non-profit Space Foundation. Cooper, who has held a number of private and public sector positions including senior policy adviser, special assistant to the NASA administrator, looked back at how humans first made history in space.

"It started 60 years ago with Yuri Gagarin, who was followed by Alan Shepard, a month later, from that first step, the second step was taken, and then there have been subsequent steps that have been built on this," Cooper told Newsweek. "Every nation looks at their space program with a great deal of pride, because it is their talent and their energy and their people who are represented there. But they take even greater pride when they see them working together as a unit as a team."

As an example of cooperation, he highlighted the Artemis Accords, a series of bilateral space travel agreements between the U.S. and seven other countries: Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom and the UAE.

The deals, established under former President Donald Trump, envision a U.S.-led effort to return to the moon by 2024 and to establish a moon-orbiting space station called Lunar Gateway, potentially similar to that which has since been announced by China and Russia.

And while Moscow has been invited to the initiative, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin has dismissed the Artemis Accords as being "too U.S.-centric." Rogozin also announced last month that Russia ultimately sought to depart the ISS in favor of its own orbital outpost it hopes to launch by 2025.

When it comes to China, Cooper hoped the Artemis Accords would ultimately set the framework for potentially expanding U.S. partnership in outer space.

"The ability to have the conversation, and share in the science, the engineering, the exploration, the information, but also sharing the opportunity is something that unites people in tremendous ways," he said.

china, flag, moon, probe, landing
This picture taken and released on December 4, 2020, by the China National Space Administration shows a Chinese national flag unfurled from the Chang'e-5 lunar probe. The probe, named after the mythical Chinese Moon goddess, was the first to bring back lunar soil samples in four decades and the first to plant a national flag on the moon in five decades. China News Service/Getty Images