Three remarkable space-related events recently occurred. On Sept 28, NASA announced flowing water had been discovered on Mars. The following week, the movie The Martian was released to an astounding 94% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating and box-office receipts topping $55 million. And perhaps most remarkable of all, on Sept 28, the U.S. and China held the first U.S.-China Space Dialogue meeting in Beijing.
An imaging spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provided strong – convincing – evidence that water intermittently flows on Mars. Usually circumspect scientists were near “giddy” at the announcement. The public was interested as well, though not surprisingly their interest focused as much on the Mars team member who plays in a death metal band and speculation about aliens as it did on the science. And then as if scripted, the movie The Martian was released, with Matt Damon’s abandoned-astronaut character winning over audiences with his wit, determination, and (spoiler alert) ingenuity in growing potatoes on Mars and rigging a spacecraft with a tarp to get himself home. But even with wit, determination and ingenuity he wouldn’t have made it home were it not for assistance from – the Chinese.
This isn’t the first time that China has snuck into a Hollywood blockbuster. A special version of Ironman 3 with extra scenes featuring a Chinese heartthrob was created for Chinese audiences. And astronaut Sandra Bullock was able to make her way home in the movie Gravity with the help of an (fictional) unoccupied Chinese space station. Clearly, Hollywood is playing to the Chinese movie market. But in both movies, Gravity and The Martian, space catastrophes resulted in the United States and China working together. Though audiences weren’t repelled by the idea of cooperation in either instance, it seems only “naïve” and “foolhardy” scriptwriters think such cooperation is possible, or desirable.
And maybe some people in the Obama Administration.
Plans for this recent U.S. China Dialogue on Civil Space was first announced last June, consequent to the seventh round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. As online space-policy analyst Marcia Smith stated regarding the Sept 28 meeting, “details are scant.” Mainstream media coverage has been virtually non-existent. Most likely, flying under the radar has been okay with the U.S. State Department, which chaired the Beijing meeting along with the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA).
Otherwise, critics would have undoubtedly trotted out their litany of reasons—ranging from human rights and freedom of religion to concerns, some valid and some overblown, about technology transfer—why the United States should scrap one of its most valuable policy tools, diplomacy, and not communicate with the Chinese regarding space. That’s the kind of convoluted reasoning that resulted in a legislative ban since 2011 on bilateral cooperation cum communication between NASA and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) with China. Careful to stay within Congressional guidelines, that legislation left it to the State Department to chair the recent Beijing meeting.
The increasing U.S. propensity, especially in conjunction with political campaigning, to equate diplomacy with appeasement and negotiation with weakness has not served the U.S. well in other parts of the world, and won’t with China either. The Obama Administration has apparently decided that with nothing to lose politically, it intends to make strategic and sometimes bold foreign policy moves before leaving office, in spite of obstructionist roadblocks: normalizing relations with Cuba, negotiating a nuclear treaty with Iran, and talking with the Chinese about space among them. It is ironic that “talking” has become a bold policy move.
According to the DOS media note on the meeting,  the broad intent of the meeting was greater transparency, initially including an exchange of information on each other’s space policies. The importance of that simple objective cannot be overstated. The Chinese –- Asian –- cultural propensity toward opaqueness has resulted in the U.S. assessing all things space-related done by China from a worst-case scenario perspective. The American cultural attribute of everybody –- regardless of standing or knowledge – having an opinion on every subject can result in the Chinese believing that anything said in the New York Times or on Fox News is official U.S. policy. Clarity can serve both parties well.
Apparently also, according to the media note, space debris and satellite collision avoidance were discussed, in acknowledgement that those issues cannot be handled solely on a national basis and are critical to maintaining the sustainability of the space environment. Since the United States has more assets in space and is more dependent on those space assets in both civil and military operations than any other country, it behooves the U.S. to pursue all potentially valuable avenues available to protect the space environment. It is in U.S. interests. Given the increasing number of Chinese assets in space, sustainability of the space environment is in Chinese interests as well. Countries cooperate where both have a vested interest.
Other topics that were discussed in conjunction with potential cooperation were civil Earth-observation activities, space sciences, space weather and the civil Global Navigation Satellite System. Beyond the general benefits that flow to the U.S. from cooperation – including learning Chinese standard operating procedures in decision making and operations, establishing an internal Chinese constituency to argue against aggressive Chinese actions that threaten cooperative programs by creating a vested interest in continuance, and getting a closer look at Chinese capabilities – cooperation in each of these areas offers the U.S. more in benefits than associated risks.
Working together on civilian-Earth observation activities would likely involve sharing data on complex Earth-system processes relevant to everyone on the planet. There are frequently data gaps in the models designed to address these complex processes, gaps that can be closed by sharing data. Better models would yield positive benefits to both countries in fields like disaster management, environmental studies, coastal and marine planning, and sustainable land use. Everybody wins.
Space-science cooperation has long been discussed as potentially valuable and viable for two reasons. First, it can be an area of cooperation where technology-transfer concerns can be minimized. Although it would likely begin only with data exchanges, ideally data exchanges could lead to more extensive projects so that Americans can learn more about Chinese decision making and foster positive constituencies within China. Further, space scientists in both countries are notoriously like stepchildren when it comes to funding allocations. Working cooperatively could enable scientists in both countries to do more with their limited funds. One area of space science with practical application is space weather – being able to anticipate solar flares and geomagnetic storms that are potentially damaging to satellites in orbit and negatively affecting ground facilities and operations, and thereby be able to protect against those effects. Space weather “predictions” are based on fundamental scientific research on solar-terrestrial physics.
Finally, discussions on civil Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) focus on navigation satellite systems with global coverage, including the U.S. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS), the Russian GLONASS system, and the expanding Chinese BeiDou system. It is in U.S. interests to assure that China integrates BeiDou with other systems rather than having BeiDou incompatible with other systems. If China were to integrate only BeiDou into the myriad of commercial products that utilize GNSS and that China produces, thereby requiring a different receiver than currently used by GPS, that would wield significant negative economic impacts on the U.S. Additionally, non-integration could also create a more chaotic environment for GNSS use.
Therefore, the United States is not merely doing China a favor by participating in these talks or by considering expanded areas of space cooperation, as is sometimes characterized. It is the United States acting in its own best interest. While ideally the U.S. could tie space cooperation to other contentious issues between the U.S. and China – cyber attacks, for example – that is unlikely to happen. Expecting and waiting for that unlikely link to be made allows critical space issues to go unaddressed.
There are some fundamental questions about the U.S.-China relationship that might prove useful in guiding future policy. Does it support or go against U.S. interests to keep its friends close and enemies closer? If the answer to that is “yes,” then either way, the U.S. should pursue expanded opportunities to work with China in space. Is in the best interests of the United States to have China stable, or imploding? If the answer is stable, then we inherently must learn to work with China in areas of mutual interest. Is the sustainability of the space environment in the interests of the United States? If it is, there is no choice but to work with China on a variety of space issues. A second meeting is scheduled for 2016 in Washington, D.C. Hopefully real progress will be made in advancing cooperation in at least one of the areas initially broached at the recent September meeting.
Space cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was judiciously used as a mechanism to build broader areas of trust during the Cold War, and Post-Cold War years. The United States knows how to successfully conduct space diplomacy. It is an aberration that today it has to be done in secret so as not to draw the sensationalist ire of politicians and pundits. Fostering cooperation is an integral part of the Space Act that created NASA. Ironically, perhaps through the continued, unintended help of Hollywood the public will recognize the wisdom of allowing NASA, OSTP and the State Department to do their jobs, and begin to take an active role in demanding inclusive space cooperation.
 “U.S., China Hold First Civil Space Dialogue Meeting,” September 30, 2015. http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/u-s-china-hold-first-civil-space-dialogue-meeting