Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, doesn't think China will want to join the International Space Station.
"I am for the Chinese taking part in the International Space Station program," he told Aviation Week at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague. "But we understand the current situation, with the economic growth of China. And we take into account Chinese ambitions in piloted spaceflight. So I believe the Chinese themselves will not want to participate."
Now NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the only other ISS agency head who manages -- at least until the planned shuttle retirement -- a spacecraft that can take crew to orbit, is going to visit human spaceflight facilities in China. When news of his upcoming trip broke in Prague, reaction in Washington was sharp and swift.
"It should go without saying that NASA has no business cooperating with the Chinese regime on human spaceflight," said Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, a longtime critic of China on human rights and its military ambitions.
"China is taking an increasingly aggressive posture globally, and their interests rarely intersect with ours."
Wolf certainly has a point, given China's 20th-century political history and 21st-century missteps like the anti-satellite weapon test that produced more space debris than any single event up to that point. Permanov's view can be understood as a realistic assessment of the likelihood China will be willing to do what it takes to join the rest of the world in exploring space. As Russia has learned, international cooperation in space requires behaving in a manner that generates enough trust for partners to be willing to share technology that can be used as a sword as well as a plow.
"NASA's interactions with Chinese organizations will continue to be based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit," NASA told Wolf and other members of Congress objecting to Bolden's trip.
Until recently China has not been particularly transparent about its intentions in space, and suspicion of those intentions runs deep among those in Washington and elsewhere whose job it is to worry about such things.
But regardless of reassurances from NASA, which terms Bolden's trip "introductory" and promises it will not address "specific proposals for human spaceflight cooperation," these two photos show why he is going.
The first shows the crew of Soyuz TMA-01M before they lifted off for the ISS Friday morning. Once the shuttle stops flying next year, and for the foreseeable future, this will be the only route to the $100 billion outpost.
This shot shows the crew of Shenzhou 7, shortly before their launch in September 2008 to perform China's first spacewalk.
China's technical debt to Russia is clear. Less apparent is the possibility the Shenzhou offers NASA and its non-Russian partners.
Soyuz TMA-01M is the first Russian crew vehicle with a digital flight computer, an update that probably brings it up to the technical level of the Chinese spacecraft.
Shenzhou doesn't come close to Soyuz in flight heritage, of course. But it could offer another route to the space station if Soyuz is grounded, just as Soyuz was able to keep the station functioning after the Columbia accident.
There wasn't a lot of trust between the U.S. and the Soviet Union when the two nations mounted the Apollo Soyuz Test Project in 1975. Things still aren't perfect between the U.S. and Russia, which inherited the Soviet space program. But the mission was more than a "handshake in space." It formed the basis for enough trust that the two superpowers could cooperate, with their other partners, on building the ISS and keeping it in operation despite the shuttle disaster. As NASA pointed out to Wolf, building that kind of trust is part of NASA's job under the U.S. National Space Policy.
"Potential engagement with China will be consistent with the National Space Policy, which calls on NASA to: 'Expand international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities to broaden and extend the benefits of space; further the peaceful use of space, and enhance collection and partnership in sharing of space-derived information," the agency says.
China, too, has indicated its willingness to discuss a role on the ISS. As what will soon be the only nation besides Russia that can send humans to space, a Chinese role is very likely to include transportation. Regardless of the outcome of his travels, if he wants to do the thankless job he's taken on, Bolden really doesn't have any choice but to go to Beijing.