The U.S. Should Make China a Partner in Space

Why not?

Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

When NASA officials recently dropped in on their counterparts in Beijing, they arrived in secret, issued no press release and, when queried by a reporter, initially didn't acknowledge the meeting. The topic of such furtive talks? The two sides merely hoped to work together on climate satellites.

As it happens, doing so may well be illegal. Since 2011, Congress has banned NASA from almost any direct interaction with China, in the hope of preventing espionage. Banning cooperation is rarely a sign of enlightened policy making, and in this case it's especially short-sighted: The potential benefits of working together in space have never been greater.

Outside Congress, there's plenty of demand for doing so. Top space officials in both countries favor more cooperation. So do many scholars, analysts, scientists and astronauts. (So does no less an authority than Matt Damon; the impasse was the basis for a plot twist in "The Martian.")

What they all understand is that the Cold War model of space research -- in which a few rival militaries worked in isolation, keeping their discoveries secret -- is becoming obsolete, and new possibilities are fast emerging. Space is now a $330 billion industry, employing perhaps a million people. More countries are involved, supply chains are global, and entrepreneurs are eroding the old defense monopolies.

Liftoff
Investment in space ventures has surged.
 
Source: Tauri Group
Note: Excludes debt financing

That's to everyone's benefit. The markets for services such as navigation, data transmission and communication are increasingly competitive. More and more industries are relying on space-based gear, from banks and insurers to truckers and farmers. As the cost of getting stuff into orbit comes down, once far-fetched ideas -- laser communication, asteroid mining, even space-based energy production -- are on the not-too-distant horizon. 

All this inventiveness, though, creates some new challenges. As orbital space gets more crowded, countries will need to manage traffic, resolve radio-frequency disputes, control debris, limit space-based weaponry and much more. Space tourism will require rules of the road. Asteroid miners will need codes of conduct. Investors in all of the above will want some predictability.

In short, space will need new rules. Existing treaties and conventions, hashed out during the Cold War, are likely to prove insufficient for the age of microsatellites. New legal frameworks will be needed, militaries will have to cooperate, and new institutions may be required to minimize conflicts and keep everyone talking.

As preeminent spacefaring nations, America and China should take the lead in shaping this new global rulebook. But that will be hard if they can't work together.

Launch Leaders
Of the global space powers, only two aren't talking.
 
Sources: Federal Aviation Administration; Space Launch Report
Note: 2012 to 2016 (as of Aug. 26)

The key is to start small. Continuing talks, however discreet, would be prudent. Sharing data among scientists -- for instance, on environmental research -- would help build trust and avoid duplicative work. Other collaborative efforts might be coordinated through allies, to avoid running afoul of U.S. law.

Ultimately, though, Congress needs to act. Concerns about espionage are understandable. But the U.S. has cooperated productively with Russia in space for decades, despite plenty of mistrust on terrestrial matters. A similar spirit of guarded optimism should guide relations with China.

There's plenty of room in space for both the country that invented rocketry and the one that first landed on the moon. Both can help establish a new order in the cosmos. And both have much to gain from a new age of commerce and discovery.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.