May 20, 2013
As China prepares for another launch to its Tiangong-1 mini-space station next month (illustration), political scientists with an interest in space policy see the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) as a model for bringing China into “the family of space-faring nations.” The ASTP was a symbolic gesture that encouraged an eventual Cold War thaw, and was considered as such even before the historic “handshake in space” between the crews of a U.S. Apollo command module and a Soviet Soyuz capsule.
The docking had little technical significance, but it laid the groundwork for a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations that extended into strategic arms control and ultimately led to the merger of the two superpowers' space station programs that became the International Space Station.
“It's a beginning, like the arms control thing,” President Richard Nixon said of the space-cooperation agreement he and Premier Alexei Kosygin signed at their May 1972 summit meeting. U.S. historian John Logsdon discovered the quote on one of Nixon's infamous Oval Office tapes as he was researching the former president's role in U.S. space policy.
“With respect to space, Richard Nixon was a pretty strong internationalist from the start,” Logsdon says. “He suggested, as John Kennedy had suggested in his inaugural address, that space was an area where countries could cooperate.”
That thinking is definitely in force today, as U.S. astronauts take turns with cosmonauts and space travelers from Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency in commanding the ISS. But China, the only other nation to orbit its own crews, is blocked by U.S. law from even visiting the station.
The U.S. and China are forbidden to cooperate in civil space on human-rights grounds, by language Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) attached to NASA's appropriations bill. Military space cooperation between the two nations is actually easier, to the extent that the Pentagon's Africa Command has been using Chinese-owned Apstar-7 for commercial communications links.
That arrangement raised congressional eyebrows when it surfaced at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, but it illustrates the kind of cooperation U.S.-China experts convened by the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, say could ease tensions and improve U.S. leadership in space.
“U.S. restrictions on working with China in space are coming across as the U.S. is a bit of the mean girl in the international space community, as though we think we can just decide who is in the clique and who is not,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval War College, who stressed that she was expressing her own opinion as an academic.