Hubris, Cooperation, and NASA

SPACE.com posted a recent article about NASA Chief Bolden’s visit to China. Insofar as a US government official is (and should be) visiting his peers in other countries, the visit isn’t controversial.

However, the hubris of American foreign policy and the stupidity of the members of US Congress never cease to amaze me. To quote:

“As you know, we have serious concerns about the nature and goals of China’s space program and strongly oppose any cooperation between NASA and China,” the lawmakers wrote Bolden Oct. 15 as he was leaving for China.

The fallacy is based on the premise that China wants, or even should want, any cooperation with NASA. To do so would be a death warrant for its own programs. Unlike the United States, Chinas has stated a clear goal and timeframe: to put a human on the moon by 2025 to 2030. China could probably do so much sooner if it wished, but the goal achieves the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

On the contrary, NASA has nothing. I shouldn’t say NASA, because most members of NASA do desire a SMARTer mission. However, the last four decades of NASA has been a legacy of failure, declining capability, and lost opportunity. NASA has been a make-work program for lawmakers that has achieved nothing since Nixon killed the highly successful Apollo program.

Moreover, the lawmakers fallacy is based on the premise that US even has anything interesting to offer to China. There is a joke in the space advocacy communities: if NASA can go to the moon, why can’t NASA just go to the moon? There are specific areas, of course, where NASA has a great deal of knowledge and leadership, including the psychological and physiological affects of space travel on humans. Otherwise US capability for heavy lift launch is dwindling, and no longer particularly cutting edge. The Europeans, Russians, and (nearly) Japanese are equally capable of heavy lift launch (though Japan will never be a major player in this area).

It is obvious China also intends to militarize space, as other space powers have done before it, including the United States. However, China does not intend to compete militarily on a global scale with the United States. Chinese leaders are too smart for that. More specifically, China is investing in a variety of military capabilities to disable adversaries (including the United States) from carrying out military operations in Chinese territories. It is not a strategy of, in military terms, forward force projection. Americans may fear otherwise.

The defensive strategy is rational and even predictable. Look at a world map and center it on China. To the southwest is India. To the north is Russia. To the east are Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. To the south and southwest are Singapore and Australia. All have formidable military or naval capabilities and are unfriendly towards Chinese military interests. China is literally surrounded on all sides.

Here is how I interpret what the US lawmakers are really saying:

As you know we have serious concerns about the decline of US hegemony caused by our own decade long record of fiscal recklessness. We are concerned about the nature and goals of the Chinese space program that might inhibit the use of US forward force projection to achieve diplomatic goals or force economic concessions on the Chinese people. We oppose China in succeeding in an area where we have demonstrated 40 years to complete and total failure.