18 June 2021 — Moon of Alabama
There was a time when the U.S. was open to international cooperation in space. It gained prestige and influence from these projects. But fear of competition from China and Russia have led to attempts to exclude these countries from international projects.
In May 2011 Congress banned scientific cooperation with China:
A two-sentence clause included in the U.S. spending bill approved by Congress a few weeks ago threatens to reverse more than three decades of constructive U.S. engagement with the People’s Republic of China.
Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), a long-time critic of the Chinese government who chairs a House spending committee that oversees several science agencies, inserted the language into the spending legislation to prevent NASA or the Office of Science and Technology Policy from using federal funds “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company.”
The European Space Agency as well as NASA were at that time favoring future cooperation with China on the International Space Station and on a planned Mars mission.
Since then other laws and sanctions have made the continuing cooperation with Russia on the International Space Station more difficult.
Banned from international space projects in which the U.S. is involved China went its own way. Ten years later it put a lander on the far side of the moon where the rover Yutu, the jade rabbit, is now pounding moon stones in his mortar to look for the elixir of life.
Last year China sent Tianwen, Heavenly Questions, and another rover named Zhurong, a god of fire, to Mars. It landed there in February:
“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter,” mission managers wrote before launch in the journal Nature Astronomy. “No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way. If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”
A week ago Zhurong, the fire god, took a selfie and sent it back to earth:
The camera, originally fitted to the rover bottom, was released by the rover at 10 meters south of the platform and captured the video footage of the rover returning to the platform and took the selfie. The camera then used a wireless signal to transmit the pictures and videos to the rover, which beamed them back to Earth via the orbiter.
“China will publish the related scientific data in a timely manner to let humankind share in the fruits of the country’s space exploration development,” said Zhang Kejian, head of the CNSA.
Yesterday China’s space agency announced another success as three astronauts arrived at Tianhe, the Harmony of Heavens, which is the first module of Tiangong, the Heavenly Palace space station:
Three Chinese astronauts have entered the core module of China’s permanent space station to embark on their three-month mission, becoming the module’s first occupants and pioneers in one of the nation’s grandest space endeavors.
Tianhe, the biggest and heaviest spacecraft China has constructed, is 16.6 meters long and has a diameter of 4.2 meters. The craft’s weight, at 22.5 tons, is equal to the combined weight of 15 standard size automobiles. It has three parts－a connecting section, a life-support and control section and a resources section.
Meanwhile the International Space Station develops more and more technical problems and is becoming obsolete. Russia is now thinking of building its own one. It may alternatively add its own modules to the Chinese station.
Russia and China will also cooperate to build a permanent station on the moon:
China and Russia have agreed to jointly construct a lunar space station that will be “open to all countries,” the China National Space Administration said in a statement on Tuesday.
A statement from Russian space agency Roscosmos said the two organizations planned to “promote cooperation on the creation of an open-access ILRS for all interested countries and international partners, with the goal of strengthening research cooperation and promoting the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all mankind.”
The attempts to keep China and increasingly also Russia away from international space projects have only led to them starting competing projects. These are likely to gain more countries to cooperate with them.
The exclusionary policy of the U.S. has not been successful. In the end it resulted in a loss of influence over future projects for which China and Russia are inviting everyone but the U.S.
Humanity would be better off if we avoided such splits.