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.
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Sources: Huntsville Times, Discovery Space