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How SpaceX Launched a Chinese Experiment Into Space, Despite U.S. Ban
Where Congress sees security risks, private industry sees opportunity.
SpaceX celebrated a successful rocket launch on Saturday, sending a reused cargo spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station in orbit approximately 250 miles above the earth. But Elon Musk’s California-based company kept quiet about the spacecraft’s stowaway — a Chinese science experiment now installed in the Space Station. It’s a sign that aerospace’s swiftly-advancing private sector may have found yet another innovation: A way to evade the years-long ban on official cooperation in space between the United States and China.
The Chinese experiment carried aloft by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will test how space radiation effects gene mutation, with potential ramifications for extended human space travel. It was designed by the Beijing Institute of Technology, who partnered with NanoRacks, paying the U.S. company approximately $200,000 to assist with transportation and data collection. It marks the first time a Chinese experiment has been conducted in the Space Station’s U.S. section, according to tech news site ARS Technica.
International space cooperation these days, if not in the early years of the space race, is common, as it helps offset the extraordinarily high costs of technology and space travel. Russia and the United States jointly operate the Space Station, and NASA has signed a deal shelling out $490 million for Russia’s Soyuz space modules to deliver six U.S. astronauts to the space station.
But cooperation has its limits: Congress banned bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese state-owned enterprises and Chinese citizens in 2011, citing national security risks. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) upheld the ban after he became chair of the House subcommittee that funds NASA in 2014.
“China’s space program is owned and controlled entirely by the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese government have proven to be the world’s most aggressive in cyber-espionage,” Culberson said in an October 2015 statement. “I intend to vigorously enforce the longstanding prohibitions designed to protect America’s space program.”
China’s space program, as with many state-owned Chinese firms from energy outfits to port developers, has close ties to its military. But the extent of such ties and even basic information about Chinese space programs, such as how much funding they receive, is uncertain due to lack of transparency.
An even greater concern is technology transfer and theft. In 1998, a congressional investigation discovered that China had developed intercontinental ballistic missile systems incorporating U.S. technology originally offered to Chinese companies for commercial use. As a result, Congress shifted licensing requirements for all satellites and related technology to the State Department, which is in charge of approving commercial arms exports. For this launch, however, no State Department license was required, according to a person involved.
SpaceX declined to comment on the licensing aspects of the launch.
China’s space program is highly advanced and extremely ambitious. In 2013, China became the third country after the United States and Russia to land on the moon; the Jade Rabbit rover spent 31 months gathering data before shutting down. China has put two space laboratory modules into orbit and hopes to have its own full-size space station within the next decade. In January, the China National Space Administration announced plans to land a probe on Mars by 2020.
NanoRacks took steps to prevent any technology transfer during the course of its partnership with the Chinese institute, according to the company, including isolating its research platforms to guarantee there was no interface between external researchers and the Space Station system. NanoRacks spokesperson Abby Dickes says these measures meant that the company did not need permission from the State Department for its partnership with Beijing Institute of Technology. Dan Huot, a NASA spokesperson, confirmed that no part of the project connected into the Space Station’s IT system, and that NASA properly notified Congress of the project.
Commercial partnerships have “no ‘flags,’” NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber told Chinese state news agency Xinhua. “I believe commercial is the pathway forward for greater cooperation with Chinese companies and educational organizations.”
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images