NASA's Bolden walks tight rope on China trip
NASA administrator Bolden's trip to China comes at a time of upheaval in the US human spaceflight program, including doubt about Bolden's future at the space agency's helm.
NASA administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr. travels to China this weekend on what he has described as an "introductory" visit that includes discussions of potential opportunities for future cooperation in human spaceflight.Skip to next paragraph
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The trip, at the invitation of Chinese space officials, comes at a time of upheaval in the US human spaceflight program, and amid growing ripples of doubt among observers in Washington about Bolden's future at the space agency's helm.
"He's sort of viewing the trip as a victory lap," says Keith Cowing, editor of the website NASAWatch, as momentum appears to be building to replace him.
On Oct. 11, President Obama signed the space agency's budget-authorization bill for the new fiscal year – a signing at which Bolden was noticeably absent. The measure would begin the process of reshaping the agency's human-spaceflight agenda as the 38-year-old space-shuttle program draws to a close.
NASA would send its smaller cadre of astronauts to and from the International Space Station on rockets operated by private companies. Meanwhile, its human-spaceflight efforts would focus on fostering the technologies and designing a rocket powerful enough to allow astronauts to explore destinations beyond low-Earth orbit.
US will hitch rides with Russia
Until private companies can demonstrate their ability to safely loft humans, the US will rely on Russia to ferry NASA's space-station crew members to and from the orbiting outpost.
Meanwhile, over the past decade China has sent its own taikonauts into orbit, demonstrating an increasingly sophisticated human-spaceflight capability. And it has outlined plans to develop its own space station and perhaps send its taikonauts to the moon.
President Obama has given international cooperation in human spaceflight a lofty spot in his formal space policy, released in June. Indeed, Bolden's trip stems from Obama's visit to China last November. A joint statement that followed the meeting called for an exchange of visits by space agency officials to each others' countries during 2010.
The concept of including China in human-space-exploration projects is based at least as much on realpolitik as it is on any idealistic notion that cooperation is inherently a good thing.
In April, for instance, Bolden told a meeting of NASA's Advisory Council that every other major partner in the International Space Station project is interested in working with China on human spaceflight efforts, including the space station.