At a time when NASA and its partners are trying to decide how long to maintain the International Space Station, China has taken the significant step of inviting the world to its planned orbital station. The China Space Station, or CSS, could become operational as soon as 2022.
“CSS belongs not only to China, but also to the world,” said Shi Zhongjun, China’s Ambassador to UN and other international organizations in Vienna.
Such an announcement represents potentially the greatest soft power threat of the last six decades to US and Russian dominance of spaceflight. In the public announcement of this policy on China’s state news service , Chinese officials said the country stands ready to help other developing countries interested in space technology—and in having their own space programs.
This inclusive approach (though just how inclusive an authoritarian government can be remains to be seen) offers a rebuke of sorts to the US government and the International Space Station. By law, the US forbids direct involvement between China’s space program and NASA. Some at NASA want to change this, but Congress has established such rules to prevent technology transfer.
Europe already going
Now that the ISS may go away as soon as 2025, when the White House wants to end most of NASA’s $3 to $4 billion a year support for station activities, China sees an opportunity to position itself as an alternative to nations with programs that cannot get their own people and experiments into space. This includes both developing nations as well as NASA’s longtime European partners.
Already, European astronauts such as Samantha Cristoforetti, who spent 200 days in space in 2014 and 2015 aboard the International Space Station, have begun traveling to China to learn the language and train with their Chinese counterparts. “Just back from China, great week, many new friends,” Cristoforetti tweeted last year. The European Space Agency has an agreement with China’s Space Agency that should allow European astronauts to visit the Chinese space station in the 2020s.
One of the biggest challenges for the Trump administration’s space program will be how to meld its “America first” identity together with a long history of using NASA to foster meaningful partnerships around the world, including those with longtime rival Russia. The agency has sought to position its proposed “gateway” (a smaller version of the International Space Station) in orbit near the Moon as an environment for cooperation between both international and commercial partners.
However, there is no guarantee the gateway facility will be built, and most of NASA’s international partners would probably prefer to go directly to the Moon’s surface instead. Ultimately, leading a human return to the Moon in the 2020s—before China reaches it with taikonauts in the 2030s—may be America’s best answer to China’s efforts to exert its influence in space.