One measure of China’s engagement with the outside world on space subjects is Chinese participation in space technology conferences. The biggest of these is the annual International Astronautical Congress. China accounts for 21 percent of the 3,403 abstracts submitted for this year’s event, to be held in Adelaide, Australia, ahead of the United States, with 17 percent, followed by Germany, Australia, Italy, Japan, India, France, Russia and the United Kingdom. Credit: International Astronautical Federation
PARIS — A senior NASA official told the U.S. Congress that China may steal the march on the United States in the use of soft-power diplomacy by getting U.S. allies to join China’s space station on the same cash-free barter basis NASA uses for the International Space Station (ISS).
William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Space Administration, may have brandished the Chinese flag to incite Congress to support ISS beyond the current 2024 retirement date. He said technical studies have shown the facility could be operated to 2028.
But Gerstenmaier has been in his job a long time and is known among the ISS partners for his measured, airline-pilot-style demeanor. And while he did not say it, several ISS partners in Europe have said they look at the Chinese space station, scheduled to be in service around 2023, as a logical jump-off point if the ISS is retired.
China to have influence on ISS options
The ISS “will be critical to U.S. leadership in space and technology,” Gerstenmaier said in March 22 testimony to the House Space, Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space. “[But] the external world is not static. China’s plans for human space exploration are also likely to influence options for the ISS.”
While it has had trouble securing its own member states’ support for continued spending on ISS, the European Space Agency has begun small-scale preparations for a future role in China’s station.
Chinese officials have used the occasion of international space conferences, notably the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC), to offer the same portfolio of cooperative space station efforts as the United States on ISS — astronaut visits, hosted experimental payloads, and docking of other nations’ laboratories.
Gerstenmaier’s testimony was designed to highlight ISS achievements that may escape the notice of a Congress fixated on the station’s cost.
He addressed the cost question head-on. Here are his numbers:
— The United States has spent $67 billion on the ISS, including the cost of 37 flights to ISS by the now-retired U.S. space shuttle.
— The United States and Russia, the two biggest contributors to ISS, have made a combined 197 launches to the ISS, which took 12 years to build and now has a mass of 925,000 pounds, or 419,600 kilograms.
— The U.S. spends $3 billion per year on ISS — $1.7 billion on launches, around $750 million on research and the rest on operations.
— NASA’s ISS partners — Europe, Japan and Canada — spend around $1 billion per year on ISS. He did not provide a figure for Russia.
— 225 astronauts from 18 nations have visited the ISS, which has served as a platform for the launch of around 150 small satellites.
— The ISS accounts for about 13 percent of the world’s annual space launches.
ISS contracts enabled SpaceX as a commercial-launch power
Gerstenmaier said the importance of the ISS in the global launch landscape has enabled SpaceX to compete on the commercial market, where it now is the principal competitor for Europe’s Arianespace for commercial launch services.
“The relaxed reliability requirements for ISS cargo allowed for disruption of the U.S. launch industry and resulted in lower launch costs for all users and the return of commercial satellite launches to the United States,” he said.
Beyond the hard facts is the fact that the ISS gives the United States an image of a leader in the peaceful use of space. It is here, he said, that China may step in if ISS is retired without a clear successor strategy.
“I can imagine the Chinese space station doing the same things,” Gerstenmaier said of NASA’s barter agreements with its ISS partners.
“I could see other countries interacting with China and, if we don’t have a U.S. space station, then that would be the only space station available to go to for these agreements. That could pull America’s leadership in space and technology towards China.
“There is a threat from the Chinese and their relationships with other governments and other countries that our international leadership role could be diminished unless with have a very strong human presence in space at that time,” he said.