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NASA's trip to China is stirring things up

Politics, morality, and military supremacy

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NASA officials are to visit China for the first time, with a view to possibly establishing some sort of cooperative approach to exploring space.

The move has provoked profound criticism from some in the home camp.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin notes that the US has so far not had any significant discussions with China about space, despite China's continued requests for involvement in the International Space Station project, for example.

He is also keen to keep expectations in check. He'll be visiting Beijing and Shanghai, as well as taking a tour of the country's aerospace facilities, and says the trip is really just about getting acquainted. He doesn't want to suggest any more than that for fear of embarrassing either side if nothing concrete comes of his visit.

But he is absolutely aware of the significance of the trip - as he says: "No NASA administrator has ever been to China."

And if Mark Whittington, a Houston-based writer and space policy analyst, has his way, it would stay that way until China deals with its really very shabby human rights record.

Writing in The Houston Chronicle, he argues that the US should think very carefully about making friendly overtures to a country that is prone to holding US soldiers captive.

He's probably right, but it is disingenuous to pretend that China was the only one behaving badly in that case. After all, the US plane in question was "gathering intelligence" [Er, is that the same as spying? - Ed] on a new Chinese warship.

He also contends that NASA should consider the morality of working with a government that routinely tortures and kills its own people.

Could he really be suggesting that NASA should tell the Bush administration that it can stick its annual funding until: Guantanamo Bay is closed, there are promises that no similar facilities will be re-opened, and Bush has scrapped the death penalty?

For the record, we think Whittington makes several good points. The US probably should be wary of doing business with China.

Here at Vulture Towers we are generally not very impressed with China's politics. It is not the communism that bothers us, per se. But we do have, shall we say, issues, with suppression of free speech, detention without charge, mowing people down with tanks, and so on.

Oh, and we quite like those monks in Tibet too, and take a dim view of people messing with their rather peaceful existence.

We also worry about the Chinese influence on Western governments: witness our own politicians' craven behaviour when Chinese officials come to tea. Peaceful protesters bundled into police cars, lest a Chinese official have to gaze upon a Tibetan flag.

Whittington is also worried that China will use the collaboration to steal US technology, and make significant advances toward military dominance of orbit.

But this is probably exactly why Griffin and his buddies are wanting to talk to China now. They can't afford to ignore it anymore, because it has become a serious player in the space race.

In the last few years, China's space programme has put three people into orbit. It plans a spacewalk for 2008, and says it wants to be on the moon by 2024. There is no reason to think that it isn't capable of getting there.

China is going to the moon. But if the US invites it into the fold, it will at least be able to keep a close eye on it, en route.

Perhaps Whittington should consider whether Griffin has had reason to consider General Sun Tzu's phrase: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

There's more from the Chronicle here.®

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