The recent Nation Research Council’s report on the future of space exploration has received praise in most quarters, though some of it has been decidedly qualified. One recommendation that is not getting a good reception is the idea of cooperation with China for a Mars mission. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has vetoed the idea according to a Thursday piece in Space News.
Nelson suggested that an international partnership in space with China would give the potential adversary the opportunity to steal American aerospace technology. Nelson also pointed out the current problems with Russia as a space partner. While the space alliance with Russia likely ensured that the International Space Station be built when it was first forged in the 1990s, it has complicated things in the 21st Century. Russia has threatened to pull out of the ISS project in 2020 in retaliation over sanctions imposed in the wake of that country’s aggression in the Ukraine.
China is currently engaged in territorial disputes with a number of its neighbors, including Japan, a certain partner in any international space exploration endeavor. Including China in any such undertaking would almost certainly lead to complications. If China and Japan were to go to war over some islands in the East China Sea, they could hardly be expected to remain as partners in a return to the moon or mission to Mars effort.
The counter argument to Nelson and others is that including China in a space exploration program would give that country an incentive to behave itself on the world stage. The theory is that grabbing a few islands would not be worth losing the opportunity to explore the moon and Mars as part of the world community. Whether the rulers of China actually adhere to this theory is an open question. It might instead choose to forge its own international partnership, say with Russia, as a rival to an American led coalition. That would result in another space race, a good or bad thing remaining to be seen.