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What should NASA do about the Chinese space station?

What should NASA do about the Chinese space station?
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It says a lot about the regard that the Chinese government has for the safety of others that the core stage of the Long March 5B, which launched the Tianhe module of that country’s planned space station, is due to crash back to Earth in an uncontrolled reentry. The rocket will mostly burn up on reentry, but large pieces could still bombard the Earth. If the spent rocket lands in an inhabited area, we can mark it as yet another crime committed by Beijing against the civilized world.

In any case, the Chinese intend to conduct 10 more launches that will deliver more pieces of the space station, cargo and astronauts so that by sometime in late 2022, the facility will be complete. The Chinese space station will be slightly smaller than the Soviet Mir space station that was deployed in the 1980s and considerably smaller than the International Space Station (ISS). It will be able to sustain a crew of three astronauts who will spend their time conducting scientific experiments and developing technology. No doubt some of that research and development will be military in nature.

Also, as Phys.org suggests, the Chinese will invite other countries to select their nationals to be guest astronauts on their space station. The Soviets did the same on their space station Mir, even before the Shuttle-Mir program that took place after the fall of the Soviet Union featured numerous NASA astronauts visiting the Russian facility. Like the Soviets, the Chinese will likely use their space station as a tool of diplomacy.

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The Chinese space station is yet another step in China’s quest to be a major space power, worthy of respect in the world community. The process will eventually lead to Chinese expeditions to the moon, with all that implies.

What should NASA do about the new Chinese space station, even if it is smaller and less capable than the ISS?

NASA should not reach out to the Chinese and attempt to forge any kind of space cooperation agreement in which Americans fly on their space station in return for Chinese astronauts doing tours on the ISS. Politico reported that some of President BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE’s advisors have urged space cooperation with China. Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden added his voice to this effort. Two arguments oppose any space agreements with the Chinese at this time.

First, the Chinese have a record of stealing intellectual property, using cyber warfare and other industrial espionage techniques. China uses stolen technology to enhance its economic and military strength in its drive for world domination.

The United States, with the exception of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, only started to consider more space cooperation with the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his perestroika and glasnost reforms when he became general secretary. American-Russian space cooperation only went into high gear after the fall of the Soviet Union. China is still a hostile power.

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The second reason that China should be held at arm’s length is that the country’s appalling human rights record — from the repression of the Uyghurs and political dissidents to the use of slave labor — makes it unworthy of being an American space partner.

The United States should use diplomacy to discourage any country from sending astronauts to the Chinese space station or cooperating with China’s space program in any way. China would like to use its space effort to enhance its standing in the world. American policy should be to isolate China’s space program in order to thwart that strategy.

The United States and the other members of the Artemis Alliance must accept the fact that China is engaged in a space race with the civilized world. The prize of the 21st century space race is not bragging rights over which side plants the flag on the moon or Mars first. The prize will be the ability to use the resources in space to enhance its economic, political and military power. The future of peace and freedom on Earth depends on China not winning that race.

Perhaps, if in some future time when a Chinese government decides to moderate its behavior, space cooperation with China will become possible and advantageous. For now, though, the Chinese space program, including the new space station, should be regarded as a threat and not an opportunity.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as "The Moon, Mars and Beyond." He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.