Will US Astronauts Ride Chinese Rockets?

Article written: 13 Apr , 2009
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
by

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The White House is reviewing possible options where NASA astronauts could catch rides to the International Space Station on Chinese rockets, according to an article in the Huntsville (Alabama) Times. The Times quoted President Barack Obama’s new science adviser, John Holdren, in an interview last week that using the Chinese National Space Agency’s Shenzhou spacecraft “should not be ruled out” during the interim between the retirement of the space shuttles and when the new Ares rocket and Orion capsule are ready to go. NASA’s plans are to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets from 2010, the planned shuttle retirement, to 2015, the tentatively scheduled first manned mission of Ares. Other options are possible commercial ferry flights to the International Space Station from the winners of the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) contracts. But could China be in the mix, as well?

NASA has been paying the Russian space agency $21.8 million per passenger for flights on the Soyuz, and that cost will likely rise. Some space experts says that agreements, and even an eventual partnership with the Chinese, could keep prices lower, as well as and establish diplomatic ties to the nation. Victoria Samson, a space and defense expert with the Colorado-based Secure World Foundation was quoted by the Huntsville Times, “It’s a great idea to reach out to China. (NASA) is looking at a lot of options because the ones they have aren’t working well. The Russians are working on a follow-up to the Soyuz, and complications like this can keep everyone in line.”

Former NASA astronaut LeRoy Chaio wrote last year as a guest blogger on Discovery.com/Space that cooperating with China “certainly makes sense. Space is a good place to start a policy shift, as the United States showed with Russia in the early 1990s… China is emerging as a true world power, both economically and technologically. … It is important to take the global view because isolationism has long been obsolete. The U.S. should find mutually beneficial areas such as space to cooperate in, and turn our Chinese adversary into a friend.”

But if NASA wants to extend a cooperative hand to China’s space agency, it might encounter political as well as technical roadblocks. Laws such as the ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation) trade laws have barred some transfer of technology to China, and would have to be amended to hand over the information China would need to modify its Shenzhou vehicle to dock with the ISS. China would also have to be able to produce more of the spacecraft than it currently does.

Sources: Huntsville Times, Discovery Space


21 Responses

  1. ND says

    There should be at least some sort of agreement on space rescue or other accident contingency plans between man-launch capable nations. The more launch options there are, probably the better outcome in case an emergency on ISS or other spacecraft in orbit.

    Just a though. With enough missions, accidents will happen at some point.

  2. Is it me, or do I have a feeling like this would never materialize?

    Especially since NASA would have to explain why they went with a foreign (semi-hostile) nation instead of one of three American space companies (SpaceX, Orbital and the embittered PlanetSpace).

  3. Layman says

    Don’t quote me on this one- but I have heard unsubstantiated reports that if China is not interested that NASA considering talking to North Korea about using their rockets!!!

  4. Astrofiend says

    First of all – this won’t happen. It’d be a cold day in hell before the US senate would allow China to have the massive PR boost that letting US astronauts ride on their rockets would give them. There is already a deep mistrust between the two countries. America would sooner go with the devil they know (Russia) than the devil they don’t.

    But, for the sake of argument, lets say that that was not an issue. On the one hand, something like this wouldn’t really matter too much if it was all smooth sailing politically etc (that’s a big IF). Just go with it for a few years, and then you’ll have a nice shiny big new toy to play with. On the other hand, from the point of view of pride – you guys are the USA – the greatest space-faring nation on Earth. And you’ve essentially been reduced to hitchhiking with countries that you don’t particularly like very much!

    It makes me wonder – (admittedly unlikely, but) what happens if the pollies over there get a taste for this outsourcing of launch capability? The Constellation budget blows out (which it inevitably will), and they can it just like they did with the Superconducting Super Collider, or numerous other examples of projects that were part way through but then just dropped? Politicians are the most short-sighted, visionless, morally bankrupt, honourless individuals on the planet, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they saw a bit of short -term gain in it and just killed it off with some sort of hand-waving ‘global financial crisis’ argument, crippling America’s man-launch capability for a decade or more. I believe Obama has a lot more sense than that, but the rest of the system is still composed of essentially the same people who have bungled literally every single decision possible for the last decade.

    On the upside however – Hmmmm… Not a lot to say there.

    I would be pissed if I was a yank…

  5. Max says

    Sounds good on paper, bad in practice.
    Both China and Russia treat space flights as political good will Gestures, not simple paid ferry rides.

    What right now is a tepid situation between the US and both nations could come to a boil after the shuttles retirement. When there is a good chance for embarrassing us by locking the west out of manned spaceflight activities.

    If we were to throw a large chunk of money around, I think COTS-D might be a better starting point.

    Developing a commercial launcher is far better for our own interests than spurring on Chinese or Russian space programs. Plus it will have uses long after Orion has arrived.

  6. Jennifer says

    but why are the costs cheaper???

    human rights violations maybe?

  7. Miguel V. says

    just a question.

    How many space flights have the chinese had?

    The soyuz capsules have been launched hundreds of times. Their capabilities and weaknesses are well known, and this keeps the risk for astronauts low. Can we say the same for the chinese capsule? Do they have the capabilities to build the capsules in a proper schedule?

    I would say no.

  8. MarsMan says

    Astrofiend I wouldn’t call politicians visionless, if a defense project happens to be centered in their district, they tend to have very grand visions of why a project must be continued for national security reasons, even when the military and NASA didn’t even ask for it.

  9. Astrofiend says

    Off topic: It’s been said before, and I’m not complaining because I completely understand UT needs to make some cash and they have no control over this – but you’ve got to appreciate the supreme irony of the huge ‘2012 comet-of-doom’ ad showing up on the UT ad banner every now and then.

    Honestly, they claim porn comprises the majority of internet traffic, but I would have to surmise that with the sheer density of gullible morons in the world, surely crank websites have overtaken porn and now reign supreme. The internet – among the cream of mankind’s finest technical achievements, 95% of the bandwidth of which is being used to download porn or promote myth/pseudoscience. You have to laugh, otherwise you’d cry. Time for Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ storyline to come into effect, me thinks.

    MarsMan Says:
    April 13th, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    So true. I retract that comment.

  10. wandering by says

    Just a minor point here about the earlier ‘let’s bash a politician’ comments.

    I know it’s easy to take a cheap shot now and then and blame these people for the various ills of society but please remember that the politician is not only our representative but also representative of us. People elect and re-elect those candidates that most reflect their values or believe like they do so if you want complain about a lack of vision or alleged corruption whinge at the voters that put them there, in other words us.

    We get the government we deserve – unless of course you don’t live in a democracy then…………

    Back to the topic and to pick up an earlier point, I remember when the US and the then USSR had a link up there was some discussion over the compatibility of docking systems etc. Obviously Soyuz/Shuttle/ISS are compatible but will the Chinese/Indians and others need to subscribe to some form of orbital ISO standard for docking and rescue capabilities to ensure that everyone can help each other out if the need arises?

  11. Astrofiend says

    wandering by Says:
    April 13th, 2009 at 11:05 pm

    “Just a minor point here about the earlier ‘let’s bash a politician’ comments.

    I know it’s easy to take a cheap shot now and then and blame these people for the various ills of society but please remember that the politician is not only our representative but also representative of us. People elect and re-elect those candidates that most reflect their values or believe like they do so if you want complain about a lack of vision or alleged corruption whinge at the voters that put them there, in other words us. ”

    I don’t want this to sound harsh wandering, but I completely disagree with you. Politicians claim to represent the people, but they almost always simply represent their own interests. There are many instances of this in Australia – I’ll mention a few here for illustrative purposes.

    Example: the vast majority of Australians agree that a woman should have the right to an abortion if she deems it necessary, with various provisos and safeguards of course. That didn’t stop the pollies trying to block access to the necessary drug on a number of occasions due to their own religious sentiment.

    In Australia, the vast majority of people believe that Euthanasia should be legal – a person should have the right to end their life under circumstance of terminal disease or unrelenting chronic pain, but that hasn’t stop the pollies making it illegal and stifling any debate about the matter.

    Most Aussies see the sense in regular back-burning of our bushland near residential areas, but because of ardent opposition from the greens and them selling their votes in the senate for political favours, laws were passed that criminalised such activity. The result – the recent disastrous bushfires in Victoria, the effects of which (including huge loss of life) may quite likely have been lessened if sense had prevailed. (Note I’m not at all anti-green, but this was an egregious case of irrational green-mania).

    On a far less serious note, there is a governor in South Australia that refuses to allow legislation to pass that would allow an ‘R’ rating of computer games in the country, despite almost every other western country having one, and recent surveys in respected newspapers showing almost universal support for such a rating. ONE MAN blocks this due to his own personal agenda.

    The list is virtually endless – it is not the exception; it is the rule.

    As for pollies representing us or our views or being a reflection of society – well, that is true to an extent, but ONLY to an extent. In Australia, voting is compulsory, so we have to vote for somebody or we get fined. Hence, we vote for those that seem to have the policies that make the most sense at the time. That is certainly not a vote of confidence in their behaviour, and it is a far cry from endorsing all of their views or decisions. The ruling party here sure as damn don’t represent me or my views in full, and yet I voted for them, because they seemed like the better of two poor choices at the time.

    In America, voting isn’t compulsory, so you tend to end up with pollies with an agenda – those who have sold their soul to the evangelicals or some other lobby group like the oil industry for money or votes. This is far worse still than our system, because whack-jobs, corporate agendas and the corresponding media manipulation will always win out due to people-in-general’s inherent lack of compassion and laziness. The last election was a welcome respite, I must admit.

    It may seem like I’m bashing democracy, but I’m not – I wouldn’t be caught living in a non-democratic society for quids. But still, the system is flawed, and if the result of that is that some of us have a cheap-shot at the politicians every now and then, well, so we should. That’s the Australian way but I say everybody should be – criticising ideas you do not agree with or behaviour you do not condone is the very foundation of democracy.

  12. Feenixx says

    wandering by suggests “some form of orbital ISO standard”

    Excellent idea, and the sooner, the better!

    If only the Chinese government would do something about their shocking human rights record…..

  13. Tech Roach says

    China ? No way. Some say even the manned space mission they had is fake. Its risky to trust those Chinese.

  14. ND says

    Tech Roach,

    who is this some?

  15. formulaterp says

    Tech Roach Says:
    “China ? No way. Some say even the manned space mission they had is fake. Its risky to trust those Chinese.”

    Then we should call their bluff!!!! When our astronaut shows up in his spacesuit with his suitcases all packed, they won’t have a spacecraft for him. Boy are their faces going to be red!

    I bet they will try to bribe him to play along with a fake mission with a lifetime supply of fried crab rangoons. But guess what? He doesn’t like fried crab rangoons, because he heard its not real crabmeat. More fake Chinese stuff.

  16. Jon Hanford says

    Some valid points have been brought up about equipment imcompatibilities (i.e. docking mechanisms) and system reliability (China is very new to manned spaceflight, with a short (and mostly successful) history.) Seen in a lighter context, maybe this will help the US economy out with the enormous trade debt we have run up with China. Oh yeah, as Feenix points out “If only the Chinese government would do something about their shocking human rights record…..” Only one other poster in this thread brought up the Chinese record on human rights. Why is this?

  17. Layman says

    Astrofiend – That was very interesting information that you gave us all on mandatory voting in Australia. I wonder how it would work over here- we need a change.

    Jon- The US would just owe the Chinese more money, how would this help with our trade deficit?

    And isn’t it a shame that NASA/Congress or who ever controls our space missions has let us get into a position where we are not going to have the ability to go into space.

  18. wandering by says

    This is for Astrofiend and is waaay off-topic so all others pls feel free to ignore.

    I don’t disagree that there are cases where the individual has put his personal views into the public policy debate but no politician is ever going to get too far ahead of a majority of the voters on a contentious issue unless they feel particularly strongly about it or are looking for a career change.

    In the RU488 case the Minister for health acted the way he did because he felt it was the right thing to AND he thought he had a sufficient level of voter support behind him, most likely based on the number of letters from voters crossing his desk. I would suggest the South-Australian Attorney-General, a politician not the unelected Governor btw, feels he’s on enough of a winner as well or that the issue is sufficiently muddy for him to feel safe to take the strange approach he is.

    A lot of the issues you quote are a closer line ball issue in our society than you might think and I’d be careful say things like ‘most believe’ as that isn’t enough of everyone otherwise the issues would’ve been decided by now. ‘Most people’ really means most people we know as society is far more diverse than we often realise.

    Every time a member of our House of Reps makes some bizarre statement they are representing the views of a certain section of the Australian community because that’s who put them there. Not only do we get the government we deserve we also get the candidates we deserve because the various parties believe that’s who we’ll vote for.

  19. wandering by says

    And now back to the issue of funding.

    Politicians will only support proper funding for Space related R&D etc when enough of the public thinks it’s important that they do, not before.

    Kennedy’s speech was great but he was really appealing to the notions of ‘USA is number 1 and we can’t let the commies beat us’ rather than some altruistic ‘because it’s there’ concept no matter how inspiring the delivery. It was a ‘race’ after all and once it was run and won the public interest died off and the funding went away and has stayed away.

    Personally speaking I believe space exploration is what we should be doing because it’s next but I know not everyone feels that way and that ‘most’ would appear to prefer to use the money to address problems down here.

    In the public policy debate it’s the public we have to engage and inspire not the politicians. This is a key mistake most lobby groups keep making. It doesn’t matter how much you embarrass a pollie if he doesn’t see the votes he won’t move.

    The US Space program has always been about national pride 1st, profitable spin-offs 2nd and exploration 3rd. Not having a go here as that’s just how it appears to be but if that (appealing to pride for example) is what gets the dollars flowing then that’s fine with me.

    In this particular case if enough US politicians think enough voters will be sufficiently upset at the idea of US astronauts having to hitch rides with the Russians and Chinese then they’ll vote NASA the money to extend the Shuttle/pay for Constellation etc However, if that’s not the case then the US astronauts will need to start brushing up their Russian, Mandarin and probably Hindi.

  20. outcast says

    “First of all – this won’t happen. It’d be a cold day in hell before the US senate would allow China to have the massive PR boost that letting US astronauts ride on their rockets would give them. There is already a deep mistrust between the two countries. America would sooner go with the devil they know (Russia) than the devil they don’t.”

    Yeah, this is unfortunately true. Long term, trying to isolate China is a bad move, they are the predominant rising star in the world, and we have to learn to accept that. Sadly, the US has a long history of turning future friends into potential enemies.

    “but why are the costs cheaper???

    human rights violations maybe?”

    They have lower living standards, meaning most stuff is cheaper. Simple economics.

    “If only the Chinese government would do something about their shocking human rights record…..”

    Believe it or not there actually has been some progress, although it is going slowly.

    A better question is what about several of our own allies, for example Saudi Arabia. In Saudia Arabia they behead people in public, don’t allow women to drive, cut peoples hands off for such crimes as petty theft, routinely torture anyone they want and yet we sell them such modern weaponry as the M1A2 Abrams tank. I find it deeply hippocritical that we make an enemy of China for this yet keep even worse offenders in our bed.

  21. grr says

    VERY BAD IDEA. China has loads of spies in America today. They are working hard to obtain any Military secret that they can. Just examine the way our economies work. We gave them MFN in mid 90’s. In return, they were to drop their trade barriers as well as free their money. NEITHER HAS HAPPENED. As it is, China is now sending up 2 classes of space stations. The first is to be exactly one space station ran by a quasi civilian group that is backed by the PLA. BUT, the PLA will also have another class of space stations that is pure PLA and it appears that it will not be one, but a series of these. There is little reason for that, OTHER THAN MILITARIZATION OF SPACE. The argument for recon capability does not make sense. It is far cheaper and easier to do military recon via conventional Sat’s.

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