A space race between the United States and China will emerge in the next five to 10 years and could jeopardize U.S. national security, a key House lawmaker said Friday.
Floridian Tom Feeney, ranking Republican on the Science and Technology Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, made the comment after the Congressional Research Service produced a report on China's space program last month.
The report concluded that the nations currently mistrust one another's space goals. The nervousness is partly due to a surprise anti-satellite weapons test that China executed last January. The test, which destroyed an inactive Chinese weather satellite, polluted the cosmos with debris that will endanger space structures owned by a couple dozen countries, including China, for years.
But CRS proposed that America could gain leverage in the relationship, if it partnered with China on technology development. "Collaborating with China -- instead of isolating it -- may keep the country dependent on U.S. technology rather than forcing it to develop technologies alone."
Furthermore, if the two nations shared the cost of joint projects, CRS said the savings could help NASA achieve its ambitious plans to send man back to the Moon and eventually to Mars.
China has publicly urged more dialogue and cooperation, but last year's test seemed to halt any U.S. support for future discussions, CRS stated.
"I would be opposed to transferring any technology to the Chinese that could potentially be used against us," Feeney said. "Almost anything that can help them launch into space and control how a vehicle operates can be used against us."
The People's Liberation Army continues to play a role in both military and civilian space operations. Feeney added: "The stakes are enormous and the Chinese know it. They teach their generals that whoever dominates space dominates the world."
Some observers say America should encourage more high-level dialogue with China to increase transparency and decrease the suspicion. While "there are members of Congress who are aware of and concerned with the lack of dialogue, the dynamics of election-year politics prohibit it becoming a priority effort at this time," Space Foundation President and CEO Elliot Pulham said.
As for making China dependent on U.S. space technology, both Pulham and Feeney say it is too late. Pulham said, "China currently has capabilities that rival those of the U.S., both in terms of launch and satellite technology." Feeney said, "The Chinese are way too sophisticated for that."
Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall, D-Colo., commented that rather than creating dependency, working together on non-sensitive technologies could help strengthen the Chinese marketplace.
But in contemplating any such participation, he said, "we need to first ensure that U.S. national security and economic interests are adequately protected."
Full committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., added that international alliances don't always save money. "I don't think collaborating with the Chinese negates our responsibility to ensure that NASA has the necessary resources to do the things that the nation has asked it to do."
Feeney said, "The Chinese success, in a perverse way, is what is going to save NASA and make it the priority that it ought to be."