Saturday, August 08, 2015

Building Bridges in Space

         By Brian Orlotti

NanoRacks LLC, a private Texas-based firm, has signed a contract with a Chinese research institute to fly an experiment on the International Space Station (ISS). The agreement is a historical milestone and a small first step towards greater space cooperation between China and the US.

A screenshot from a March, 2014 Nanoracks' promotional video. The company provides standard rack-mounted laboratory facilities and micro-gravity space access to commercial customers looking to preform experiments on-board the ISS. Screenshot c/o Nanoracks.

As outlined in the August 3rd, 2015 Houston Chronicle post, "For the first time Chinese research to fly on NASA's space station," the deal entails delivery of a Chinese experiment to the US portion of the ISS in a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and berthing it in NanoRacks' orbital laboratory facilities. The Beijing Institute of Technology (creators of the experiment) will pay NanoRacks approx $200,000 USD ($262,680 CDN) for its services.

The experiment will investigate the effects of space radiation on human DNA, and the rate at which human DNA mutates in space. Such knowledge will be crucial in the planning of long-duration human missions beyond Earth orbit.

NanoRacks has taken care to structure the deal in a way that bypasses a law passed by the US Congress forbidding all cooperation between NASA and the Chinese government.  No space hardware will be transferred from the US to China; only experimental data and tissue samples. In addition, the Beijing Institute of Technology routinely publishes its work in Western scientific journals, and so the experiment's data will be  shared with the global scientific community. NanoRacks believes that these precautions will forestall any objections from the US Congress.

The China prohibition was devised in 2011 by then-US Representative Frank Wolf; a product of his fear of Chinese theft of US space technology as well as his supposed concerns over China's human rights record. Despite the US Congress' stance,  NASA has given the venture its (unofficial) blessing.

This dissonance with US policy is unsurprising considering that many in NASA (including NASA administrator Charlie Bolden himself), the scientific community, the NewSpace industry, space advocacy groups and various political commentators have sharply criticized the China prohibition. Critics of the policy argue that working closely with the Chinese in space would help ease tensions and promote understanding between the two superpowers on Earth, just as it did between the US and the Soviet Union (and later, Russia).

Of course, that doesn't mean that the US is going to change its existing policy.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk (left) at the National Press Club in December, 2011 discussing competition in the International launch market. According to Musk, "As an American, I am happy that China is competing with us for space... Competition is where you see the most technological advancements....example: US and the USSR during the cold war... But that's okay, I think we'll win." Screenshot and video c/o National Press Club.

As outlined in the August 7th, 2015 NASAwatch post, "NASA's New Policy For Excluding Certain Foreign Nationals," it's a policy that seeks to exclude a great many non-US citizens from NASA activities, and even affects Canadian citizens.

There is much to be said for the U.S government moving away from moralistic posturing given the massive potential economic gains of a joint expansion into space and certainly in light of its own human rights record of late, which includes war, torture, rendition and near-unchecked surveillance of its citizens, allies and even its own government. A more moderate stance would do much to restore US prestige.

Brian Orlotti.
In this sense, the NewSpace industry has taken on a new role; that of unofficial mediator. NewSpace seems poised to build a bridge not only to the untapped riches of other worlds, but also between the peoples of this one.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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