March 03, 2017

Former NASA administrator urges U.S. join with China in space work, or risk losing ground

A former NASA administrator said that United States needs to work more with China on space explorations or risk falling behind as a space superpower. 

Speaking at the American Bar Association’s Forum on Air & Space Law 2017 Update Conference on Feb. 24, Major Gen. Charles Frank Bolden Jr., who recently resigned as NASA administrator following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, said he can already see it happening.

Major Gen. Charles Frank Bolden Jr. addresses a conference sponsored by the ABA Forum on Air & Space Law

Bolden said, “[China is] about a decade behind us,” on space work. However, “they have a plan and they are spending money on it.”

Indeed, China has invested billions into its space program. In 2013, it became the second largest spender in space with an annual budget of $13 billion, behind the U.S. space budget of $40 million, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

China is determined to become one of the leaders in space exploration, and last year carried out 19 space launches, one more than the United States.

“We are the only one of the International Space Station partners that does not do things with China in human space flight,” Bolden said.

Bolden hopes that will change. Last summer he visited China and last fall signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate with the country on aeronautics research, which would ultimately advance air transportation automation.

“That’s a huge deal,” Bolden said. He added that it’s the first NASA MOU agreement with China in more than 20 years.

Historically, the United States has been reticent to work with China, citing the secrecy of its space program and suspicions that the country will use its advances for military gain.  Likewise, several members of the audience expressed similar apprehension in working with China.

However, Bolden said that if NASA could get the Chinese to work with them as they have gotten the Russians to work with them on space explorations it would strengthen the entire global aviation and space community.

Speaking on other topics, Bolden expressed excitement about NASA’s work on a low-boom supersonic airplane, which would be human piloted and put astronauts into deep space.

He said the world will find humans in the “vicinity” of Mars in the early 2030s. He said NASA has demonstrated that the capsule can get there, but the goal is to carry a crew there, “unless Congress just says walk away from it,” he said.

Bolden also reviewed legal challenges involving salvage law, property rights in space and air traffic management. Bolden said the mining of asteroids is “an area of space law that is ripe for development.”