Is outer space big enough for the U.S. and China?

Is outer space big enough for the U.S. and China?

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited China last December, he and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao issued a joint statement promising "the initiation of a joint dialogue on human spaceflight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit." But don’t expect space to be on the agenda when Hu comes to Washington this month, according to Reuters’ Jim Wolf:

Hu’s state visit will highlight the importance of expanding cooperation on "bilateral, regional and global issues," the White House said.

But space appears to be a frontier too far for now, partly due to U.S. fears of an inadvertent technology transfer. China may no longer be much interested in any event, reckoning it does not need U.S. expertise for its space program.

New obstacles to cooperation have come from the Republicans capturing control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the November 2 congressional elections from Obama’s Democrats.

Representative Frank Wolf, for instance, is set to take over as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the U.S. space agency in the House. A China critic and human rights firebrand, the Republican congressman has faulted NASA’s chief for meeting leaders of China’s Manned Space Engineering Office in October.

"As you know, we have serious concerns about the nature and goals of China’s space program and strongly oppose any cooperation between NASA and China," Wolf and three fellow Republicans wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on October 15 as he left for China.

It’s hard to look at space and not see an example of American decline. While China has launched two moon orbiters and conducted a space walk in recent years and plans for a moon rover by 2012, the U.S. is now forced to hitch a ride on Soviet-era Soyuz rockets in order to maintain the international space station.