Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama told a recent editorial meeting at the Huntsville Times that the United States should engage China on space cooperation. Though acknowledging the concerns, the highly partisan Senator, who is also a fierce defender of Marshall Spaceflight Center, said the opportunities were too great to just “push them in the corner.” I found a video of some of his remarks on China. .
Times reporter Shelby G. Spires in an April 14th print story, covered more of the Senator's comments. He quotes the Republican leader as suggesting that “because NASA is facing shrinking budgets to achieve its goals, it may be necessary to expand and look for other nations to join the station program. Shelby said it would be in the United States' interest to work with China on a station partnership.”
What would have once been an impossible comment from a southern Republican politician is yet another sign of the emerging new world order for NASA. Or what should be a new opportunity for NASA. We have entered a period where politicians are now most engaged on issues of trade and jobs. It is a balancing act where trade considerations have far more weight than the once triumphed political symbolism of our space program. And with each new program triumph from India and China, the concerns of technology transfer also lessen.
The motivation for the Senator is not difficult to understand. Consider that China is now the number four export destination for Alabama products, with a total market value of over $800 million dollars. The only markets that are more vital for Alabama jobs are those in Germany, Canada and Mexico. That represents a lot of jobs.
This is the new reality utmost in the minds of politicians. Shelby did speak of the technology transfer dangers, specifically mentioning the support the Chinese received from satellite manufacturers in the mid 1990’s, but he clearly supports inviting China into NASA programs.
Nor will this new willingness of NASA supporters to engage more aggressively with trading partners begin and end with China, I have a hunch. Looking through a table of Alabama exports, I was startled to discover that Alabama exports to Russia leaped a staggering 830% last year, from a paltry $33 million to $300 million. Michael J. Brooks at the Alabama International Trade Center broke the numbers down further for me, explaining that two thirds of that growth was due to Russian buying of Alabama frozen poultry, and one third for what seems to be modifications of existing Russian aircraft.
Here’s the bottom line: I have this feeling that there is untapped political support for NASA to reach out to China and continue engagement with Russia. The untapped support is in a geographical band that stretches from the deep South to the entire breadth of the West Coast, reflecting the huge trade with China that exists in those states.
If President Obama and the new space team choose to think of NASA less as political symbolism and more as a trading opportunity, his administration will find bi-partisan support from a new generation of space supporters.