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.
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.
As if to underscore the point, in June the European Space Agency's director-general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, told China's Xinahua News Agency, "I am really willing to support the extension of the partnership of the ISS to China and South Korea," although, he added, such a move also would need the approval of other ISS partners.
The danger, Bolden told the advisory council, is that any insistence at keeping China at arm’s length on projects such as the ISS – in which the US holds one vote out of five in setting policy for the station – could end up isolating the US instead. It's an argument some space-policy specialists outside the government have advanced as well.
Unsettled debate in Congress
Cooperation with China in human spaceflight remains an unsettled debate on Capitol Hill. It's layered atop already strong disagreements among lawmakers over the direction the President is trying to set for the US human spaceflight program.
Earlier this month, Bolden responded to Republican angst about the trip by noting in a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia that "my visit is intended to be introductory in nature and will not include consideration of any specific proposals for human space flight cooperation or new cooperation in any other areas of NASA's activities."
Friday, three Republican lawmakers sent a letter to Bolden reiterating their worries about the trip, given deep concerns about the "nature and goals of China's space program."
The trio, which included Rep. John Culbertson of Texas, Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, and Mr. Wolf, noted that Bolden had announced the trip on short notice and with a dearth of information for lawmakers. They sought a "full briefing" on the trip when Bolden returns.
Others have been more supportive. A bipartisan trio of congressmen with the Congressional US-China Working Group observed in a letter to Bolden earlier this month that the trip might provide an opening to talk about stepping stones to deeper cooperation. One might be the development of a common docking mechanism for US, Russian, and Chinese spacecraft, including any space station the Chinese might be planning.
But anything that smacks of an agreement, even if informal, between the two space programs would give the administration's opponents more ammunition to use during an already contentious elections campaign, Mr. Cowing of NASAWatch says.
Tossing political opponents more red meat – even through the space program is not among the election's dominant issue – would be most unwelcomed at the executive end of Pennsylvania Avenue.