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China, the ISS, and geopolitics

In an op-ed last week in the Los Angeles Times, former MirCorp CEO Jeffrey Manber argued that the US should allow China to participate in the International Space Station project. Allowing China to cooperate would have practical benefits (another means to access the ISS, another country to help pay for it), as well as political (as an enabler of “frank discussions on strategic space issues” like anti-satellite weapons).

In an essay in today’s issue of The Space Review, Dwayne Day critically examines that proposal. Day is skeptical of some of the claimed advantages of including China in the project, given the lack of flight experience with China’s Shenzhou spacecraft as well as doubts that including China would do much to defray the costs of the existing ISS partners. Day does take note of one feature of Manber’s proposal that has not previously been discussed in past suggestions to include China in the ISS: including China would “moderate the Russians”, in much the same way that the US-China rapprochement during the Nixon years ended up improving US-Soviet relations as well. Just don’t expect anything to happen soon: it’s highly unlikely the Bush Administration will take any steps in this direction during its final year in office. “It will not require another Richard Nixon to improve relations with China,” concludes Day, “but it will require someone other than George W. Bush.”

29 comments to China, the ISS, and geopolitics

  • Excellent essay, as usual, Mr. Day. However, I would suggest that we have no way of knowing whether the Space Station has changed the American-Russian relationship for the better. Yes, it is headed south over strategic disputes having to do with missile defense, but the Space Station has kept high-level technology people on both sides working together for many years now. This is likely to have cultural, technological, and even strategic benefits beyond the costs, measured in knowledge of the other side and (as you point out) important contacts.

    Likewise, the Russian aerospace industry despirately needs the cash generated by Soyuz flights. It may be possible that the relationship could have been worse without the ISS. While this is pure speculation, I’d have liked you to have at leased addressed the idea.

    – Donald

  • Dwayne Day

    Dr. Foust’s summary gives the impression that I did not like Manber’s proposal. I hope that my essay did not give that impression. I think his idea is intriguing, but that the practicalities of it are dicey. Look at it this way–by 2011, when the US could use China’s Shenzhou, the Chinese may have only flown it 4-5 times manned, with perhaps only two rendezvous events. That is insufficient for the US to consider allowing it close to ISS.

    And of course the US is not going to give the Chinese rendezvous technology (one could argue that the technology would be useful as a weapon–although China has already demonstrated high-speed rendezvous). The US approach would likely be “You develop it on your own, prove it, and then show it to us before we will consider letting you near the ISS.” How many years will that take?

    Still, Manber has an idea worthy of further study.

  • Mr. Day, I can’t remember where I read it, but I know that there were some Chinease that felt that they should have been invited after they demonstrated Shenzhou, and were suprized that they weren’t.

    I think the main point of involving them in the ISS program, even if it happens on a gradual timeframe (first having one of their astronauts fly up, and allowing them rack space, and so on and so forth) is probably the best way to go, since you do make a good point about the lack of historical capablities of their Shenzhou’s docking abilities.

    That said, I am curious as to how you would respond to the following point – why is it ok for a private US company to dock with the station (who has absolutely no flight experinces) ie Dragon, or ATK docking with the station, which also has no flight experince, but its not ok for the Chinease, given that they’ll have some (albiet limited) flight experince?

  • Dwayne Day

    “but I know that there were some Chinease that felt that they should have been invited after they demonstrated Shenzhou, and were suprized that they weren’t.”

    That was reported in AWST, I believe. But I also think they were being rather presumptuous. They could have played it better, for instance, by inviting the Americans over for a tour of the Shenzhou. They’re not good at playing the PR game.

    “why is it ok for a private US company to dock with the station (who has absolutely no flight experinces) ie Dragon, or ATK docking with the station, which also has no flight experince, but its not ok for the Chinease, given that they’ll have some (albiet limited) flight experince?”

    Because the US govt. will be granted full insight into these companies’ systems. In other words, it is certainly part of the contract that before any one of those spacecraft is allowed near ISS, NASA is allowed to go through all of their technical documentation.

    The Chinese, of course, would not allow such close scrutiny. They might allow some, but they would have to have something else to bring to the table as well, such as demonstrated reliability over several rendezvous events.

  • reader

    There was three years between first ever orbital docking of spacecraft and a first ever manned moon landing.
    what have we become ?

  • D. Messier

    I think that could be a hard sell in the wake of the ASAT test and the resulting massive cloud of debris. But, stranger things have happened.

    Of course, this would dilute the ROI for the existing partners even further. However, since the ROI is already so small and more diluted than draft beer at a football stadium, I can’t see how much it would all that hurt.

  • “Look at it this way–by 2011, when the US could use China’s Shenzhou, the Chinese may have only flown it 4-5 times manned, with perhaps only two rendezvous events. That is insufficient for the US to consider allowing it close to ISS.”

    Not to dispute the general thrust of Dr. Day’s essay and comments, but the certainty and specifics of the statement above are questionable given the precedents NASA is setting with the European Jules Verne/ATV and the Japanese HTV. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but Jules Verne will be ESA’s first spacecraft rendezvous and docking attempt ever (automated or otherwise). And although NASDA successfully executed two automated rendezvous and docking attempts with the ETS-VII satellites back in 1998 and HTV will build on that heritage, ETS-VII and HTV will be two substantially different systems.

    If the Chinese do successfully execute a couple Shenzhou dockings over the next few years, they will arguably be in a better position technically (demonstrated rendezvous and docking events using the actual flight systems) for ISS proximity operations than our European and Japanese partners are today. If that becomes the case, it’s unclear how NASA could turn down a Chinese ISS partnership on the basis of rendezvous and docking technology or experience.

    There obviously may be other issues (technical or otherwise) that will prevent such a scenario, but rendezvous and docking should not be one if the Chinese execute according to their plans in the coming years.

    (Note that one could make similar arguments about the disparity in rendezvous and docking demonstrations being required of COTS competitors and ATV/HTV.)

    FWIW…

  • Dwayne Day

    “If the Chinese do successfully execute a couple Shenzhou dockings over the next few years, they will arguably be in a better position technically (demonstrated rendezvous and docking events using the actual flight systems) for ISS proximity operations than our European and Japanese partners are today.”

    We trust the Japanese and the European technology. We would not trust Chinese technology unless a) it had been successfully demonstrated several times, and b) we had insight into the technology.

    NASA undoubtedly has thoroughly vetted the JV rendezvous and docking system.

  • “We trust the Japanese and the European technology. We would not trust Chinese technology unless a) it had been successfully demonstrated several times,”

    But this is the point I’m making. If we assume a scenario a half-decade or so out in which China has repeatedly and successfully demonstrated Shenzhou rendezvous and dockings, would the U.S. have a technical leg to stand on in rejecting Chinese entry into the ISS partnership?

    “and b) we had insight into the technology.”

    And this might be that leg. But whether or not China meets demands for transparency depends on how much the Chinese want the imprimatur of credibility that entry into the ISS partnership would give their space program and national leadership. And although Shenzhou technology would have little value to the U.S., using technical insight into Shenzhou as a lever to force the Chinese to create some level of transparency in their civil/military space program would have value to the U.S. It would arguably be a good thing to pursue, irrespective of the technical issues associated with ISS/Shenzhou rendezvous and docking.

    FWIW…

  • Dwayne Day

    “If we assume a scenario a half-decade or so out in which China has repeatedly and successfully demonstrated Shenzhou rendezvous and dockings, would the U.S. have a technical leg to stand on in rejecting Chinese entry into the ISS partnership?”

    You seem to have misread my article. One point that I made was that everybody focuses on the political aspect, but there is a technical aspect as well. NASA will not want to allow Shenzhou near ISS _unless_ the Chinese have demonstrated both safety and rendezvous. If they demonstrate that, then the technical issue will recede. It will not go away completely, and NASA will insist upon some insight into the Shenzhou.

    The question here was why would NASA allow a COTS spacecraft to approach ISS without demonstrated rendezvous and not allow Shenzhou to approach ISS without demonstrated rendezvous. My point was that NASA will be allowed to go over the COTS spacecraft with a fine tooth comb to make sure it is safe.

  • using technical insight into Shenzhou as a lever to force the Chinese to create some level of transparency in their civil/military space program would have value to the U.S.

    I agree, but that’s not going to fly with the significant faction who hold as an article of faith that all ISS’ shortcomings are traceable to when Clinton, for no good reason, went and internationalized the project. From there — yes, it’s another planet and no, I have no idea what color their sky is — any role for China will inevitably be seen as more of the [already proven bad] same.

  • I agree, but that’s not going to fly with the significant faction who hold as an article of faith that all ISS’ shortcomings are traceable to when Clinton, for no good reason, went and internationalized the project.

    Well, they are all traceable to that. If he hadn’t done that, there would be no ISS, and no shortcomings. Not that there would be anything wrong with that…

  • reader

    ive always been under the impression that the fundamental flaw of the ISS was that its construction was critically dependent on a single certain launch vehicle. Oh wait, thats the sole reason why it was conceived… move on.

  • Rand: Well, they are all traceable to that. If he hadn’t done that, there would be no ISS, and no shortcomings. Not that there would be anything wrong with that…

    Well, I can think of one thing wrong with that. If that had happened, the Shuttle program, lacking a purpose, probably would have been cancelled after the loss of Columbia. Then, there would have been no government human space program — and, thus, probably little or no market large enough to politically or economically justify COTS.

    – Donald

  • I continue to disagree that COTS is significant in human spaceflight. We are going to get there through private space travel, and what the government does at this point, COTS or no, isn’t very relevant. And we would have saved many billions of dollars, and not perpetuated the myth that only NASA can do human spaceflight, and that it must be dangerous and horrifically expensive.

  • “If that had happened, the Shuttle program, lacking a purpose, probably would have been cancelled after the loss of Columbia. Then, there would have been no government human space program — and, thus, probably little or no market large enough to politically or economically justify COTS.”

    Not to restart old debates — I won’t say more after this post on this topic — but it’s the coming end of the Shuttle program, not ISS, that creates the demand for COTS. Absent ISS, the U.S. Government, right or wrong, would still be flying astronauts and associated activities in orbit, and those transport needs could still be met commercially after Shuttle’s retirement. No White House is going to end the human space flight program. It’s just a question of how efficiently they and NASA manage the fulfillment of the program’s needs.

    FWIW…

  • reader

    Donald, you have been trying to make the point that ISS and/or COTS are somehow critical markets. But a few simple observations will tell you that tourism market exists with or without ISS, and private spaceflight happens regardless of COTS.
    COTS may yet prove to be a useful means to speed up progress ( not a foregone conclusion, the entire RpK fiasco may do more harm than good ) its by far not critical and it couldnt be. Also, if you take the AAS program as an example, it actually held back progress by letting capable organizations spend resources and chase this goal, only to have the carpet pulled away under them a bit later. Yes, people who got burned are “wiser” now, but did we really need this lesson ?

  • Dwayne Day

    This thread has once again reaffirmed my belief that the comments section of this site is pointless. Every single thread always comes back to the same topics: private spaceflight, the stupidity of ESAS, or NASA leadership deceptions. There’s no point in trying to discuss any other space policy issue in this forum because it always regresses towards the mean.

  • Sorry you feel that way, Mr. Day.

    Rand: the myth that only NASA can do human spaceflight,

    Interesting myth, since NASA is doing human spaceflight (however badly or otherwise) and except for three (I think) suborbital hops, private industry has yet to do so (though they have ridden along on Soyuz flights).

    Anonymous: No White House is going to end the human space flight program.

    While this is probably true today, I think this is a relatively new condition largely driven by the presense of the Space Station. When the decision to retain the Space Station was made, I doubt it was so, and the Clinton White House apparently did indeed come very close to cancelling the Space Station. If they had, I doubt we’d have retained human spaceflight after Columbia.

    Absent ISS, the U.S. Government, right or wrong, would still be flying astronauts and associated activities in orbit

    To do what? In the absense of the Space Station, the purpose of the Shuttle, and thus government human spaceflight, would have seemed to disappear. Yes, the Shuttle was kept flying for years by itself, but that was in anticipation of the ISS.

    But a few simple observations will tell you that tourism market exists with or without ISS

    Does it? I think so, but by itself it is still a very fragile market, and the demonstrated market that exists right now is only to the Space Station. Absent the ISS and the “free” Soyuz flights it justifies, orbital tourism may or may not continue, but would be economically a lot more difficult. Likewise, I think suborbital tourism will prove a large market, but we are not there yet, and even if we were, it remains a big step from there to orbital tourism without riding on government spacecraft going to a government destination.

    When orbital tourist flights actually fly without the government infrastructure, than I’ll buy this arguement. Even then, more and larger markets are better, no? Hense, tourism + ISS is better, no?

    – Donald

  • Al Fansome

    DWAYNE DAY: This thread has once again reaffirmed my belief that the comments section of this site is pointless. Every single thread always comes back to the same topics: private spaceflight, the stupidity of ESAS, or NASA leadership deceptions. There’s no point in trying to discuss any other space policy issue in this forum because it always regresses towards the mean.

    Please elaborate why you think they are “pointless”. You are lumping everybody together to make your statement into a generality. Each poster obviously has their own point to make, and therefore each person is making the points they want to make. It just may not be your point.

    QUESTION: What “points” do you want people to discuss?

    Let me be very specific. Which “point” did you make that you want ME to respond to? (I can’t speak for others, but I am willing to have a specific discussion with you on the exact point of your choosing.)

    - Al

  • Al Fansome

    Dwayne Day has asked that we comment on the points he has made, so I do so below.

    DWAYNE DAY: One point that I made was that everybody focuses on the political aspect, but there is a technical aspect as well. NASA will not want to allow Shenzhou near ISS _unless_ the Chinese have demonstrated both safety and rendezvous. If they demonstrate that, then the technical issue will recede.

    The reason is that the technical issue is relatively straightforward and easy to solve, while the political problems are not easy or straightforward.

    NASA knows how to integrate new countries into ISS (they have already done so with 15 countries), and to manage the technical challenges. If the White House so directed NASA, and then NASA management directed the ISS program to do so, I am confident they would come to an agreement with China on a forward plan that dealt with all the technical challenges. NASA is good at making forward plans to deal with technical issues.

    If anybody disagrees, please say so now, and why.

    However, the geopolitical political and policy issues are much more challenging.

    Personally, I am of the opinion that the ISS should become the most exclusive club of democracies in human civilization. When China becomes a democracy, they can join. (I know that Putin is increasingly a challenge to this definition of the ISS club, but we invited Russia to join after the Wall came down, not before it came down.)

    Consistent with such a “ISS is a club of democracies” policy, we should be inviting Indian to join right now, not China.

    This is a geopolitical issue, not a technical issue, and is well beyond NASA.

    In addition, there is a major unintended consequence of bringing China into ISS in order to get access to Shenzou crew services.

    This would hand a core target market of U.S. commercial companies over to another country, completely disregarding that U.S. policy is to buy “ISS crew/cargo services” from U.S. commercial firms.

    This barter deal would significantly harm U.S. companies. I am saddened to see Jeff Manber (who used to be part of the Office of Space Commerce in the U.S. Department of Commerce in the Reagan Administration … and was one of the countries leading commercial space advocates) travel so far from his roots.

    I think it would be absolutely tragic to do everything we are doing to encourage private U.S. investment in commercial space transportation, to invest $100 Billion of taxpayers funding in the ISS, and then hand over what may be the most important result of the ISS program (a real demand side market for U.S. commercial firms) over to China.

    Finally, with regards to another point you made, I agree that bringing China into the ISS would create some benefit vis-a-vis Russia — but this benefit is purely tactical … i.e., at the NASA level. It would pay little or no geopolitical benefits, since paying a higher price for Soyuz seats is not a geopolitical problem of the United States of America.

    In summary, bringing China into the ISS is a really bad idea for U.S. commercial space transportation, and a bad idea for policy reasons also.

    - Al

  • reader

    Humm .. did anyone actually ask Chinese ? I dont think they have any real intent in becoming tied up in this project.
    I think it should be obvious that whatever goals they are pursuing on LEO or beyond, they can achieve without being tangled in the ISS.

  • reader – they have expressed real interest in joining ISS. Countless times.

    Mr Day – part of the problem is that, for better or worse, those are the biggest issues that the space community faces. They permiate practically every aspect of space, I would argue. Not talking about those 3 is, in a lot of respect, a bit like trying to have a foreign policy discussion without talking about Iraq – whether you support the war or not, I am sure everyone agrees that it is one of the largest issues we face.

    The same applies to ESAS, Nasa leadership, and, to a degree, NewSpace.

  • reader

    they have expressed real interest in joining ISS. Countless times.
    Countless ? Can you cite one credible reference ? And who are “they” ? If “they” are high CNSA officials, or ministry of foreign affairs in China, then i’d really like to see where this interest was expressed, countless times.

  • Dwayne Day

    “part of the problem is that, for better or worse, those are the biggest issues that the space community faces. They permiate practically every aspect of space, I would argue.”

    This is simply wrong. Those who actually work in the space policy field deal with a far broader and more complex range of issues. These include ITAR, acquisition reform, workforce, cost estimation and control, balance within and across program areas, international cooperation, project phasing, launch vehicle policy, legal issues, debris mitigation policies, establishment of standards of conduct/rules of the road for spacefaring powers, technology investment, priority setting and a host of other subjects. The comments on this board–when they aren’t simply wacky and totally disconnected from reality (i.e. space elevators, colonization)–are narrow and repetitive, and ultimately beside the point. The space enthusiasts are obsessed with these things, but the people who work in the field are dealing with a set of much more real, and pressing set of issues on a day to day basis.

  • Space Cowboy

    This from the guy who compares the establishment of a lunar base to the frontier life in the American wild wild west.

  • Vladislaw

    “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the
    R E P U B L I C for which it stands….” America is a democracy? When did that happen?

  • Vladislaw

    “China’s foreign interests also are mostly confined to trading around the world and maintaining control of those territories that it considers traditionally Chinese, like Tibet and Taiwan. China has not demonstrated an interest in fomenting revolution around the world for decades.” Review, Dwayne Day

    “China is often accused of supporting a string of despots, nuclear proliferators, and genocidal regimes, shielding them from international pressure and thus reversing progress on human rights and humanitarian principles. But over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies toward pariah states. It strongly denounced North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006 and took the lead, with the United States, in drafting a sweeping United Nations sanctions resolution against Pyongyang. Over the past year, it has voted to impose and then tighten sanctions on Iran, it has supported the deployment of a United Nations-African Union (UN-AU) force in Darfur, and it has condemned a brutal government crackdown in Burma (which the ruling junta renamed Myanmar in 1989). China is now willing to condition its diplomatic protection of pariah countries, forcing them to become more acceptable to the international community.” http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20080101faessay87103/stephanie-kleine-ahlbrandt-andrew-small/china-s-new-dictatorship-diplomacy.html

    If all we have to go on is traditions, then we clearly know what China’s LONG TERM traditions are and we shouldn’t kid ourselves. Not in only a two year change.

    “China has been modernizing its military, but it has not demonstrated an interest in substantially increasing its strategic capabilities, such as rapidly developing a blue water navy or changing its strategic nuclear posture.” Review, Dwayne Day

    “Sea power. A hundred years after Theodore Roosevelt sent his Great While Fleet around the world to signal the emergence of a new great power, China is rediscovering the writings of Admiral Mahan on the importance of sea power in history and dreaming of a Great White Fleet of its own. Against the backdrop of an ever-shrinking U.S. Navy (more on that later), China is transforming itself as a maritime superpower at such high speed that Western analysts estimate it could become the world’s leading naval power by 2020.”

    “Space power. While lending support to Russia’s ludicrous posturing on NATO missile defense, China is experimenting with antisatellite weapons — a disturbing trend given the reliance of modern military (especially navies) on space power.”

    “soft power. On the military side, China is focusing on developing security cooperation within the ASEAN Regional Forum framework with the intent of marginalizing America. On the civilian side, China is peddling “Asian values” from Africa to Eurasia and from Latin America to Southeast Asia. For the past six years, China has been promoting autocracy through soft power while America has been promoting democracy through hard power, and the verdict is in: China today has a more positive image worldwide than America.”

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2007/08/the_revolution_in_transatlanti.html

    “But there are also technical problems with this proposal to rely upon the Shenzhou. For starters, the United States has limited knowledge of and therefore no confidence in the Chinese manned spacecraft. To date, Shenzhou has flown only twice with humans aboard. The second flight took place two years after the first, and the third, scheduled for this year, will be three years after the second. It is doubtful that the Chinese themselves can have much understanding and confidence in the vehicle considering how rarely they actually fly it.” Review, Dwayne Day

    What does the Shenzhou have to do with being a partner in the ISS? I do not remember canada having to demonstrate one. “have space crane will travel” you only had to commit to bringing something to the table in exchange you would get some flight time for your country’s astronaut. It was all about space access. If we think they can bring something to the party then ask them but in my opinion China has a ways to go before we ask.

  • Chinese annex of Iran’s oil fields untill 2024 does not bode well for nuclear non-proliferation becuase of the Iranian planned space program and thier north Korean connection in Syria that wad terminated with “Operation Orchard” and the demise of the Syrian nuclear technicians in North Korea shortly before in a train “Accident”

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