Bolden in China: A Lost Opportunity

November 4, 2010 | 8:01 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently spent a week in China taking quiet tours of Chinese space facilities and holding low-key meetings with the bureaucrats who manage China’s space programs. Both were useful and important, but he should also have used the opportunity to conduct a bit of public diplomacy and reach out to China’s young, ambitious, and increasingly nationalistic space community.

The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created NASA, begins with the following declaration of policy and purpose:

The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind.

Administrator Bolden would have done well to remind the Chinese of NASA’s core mission. Too many young Chinese view NASA simply as an extension of the U.S. military, largely because of the negative and misleading stories they see in the Chinese press. Bolden could and should have set aside an afternoon or two to tell a different story about the organization he leads to the large audiences of young Chinese space professionals who would be drawn to a public lecture from a former astronaut who commanded the space shuttle.

With the right preparation and attention to language, NASA could have spun a more positive impression of the American space program into the Chinese press, which likely would have covered and discussed his remarks. Savvy cross-cultural communicators can influence public perceptions in a Chinese media and educational environment that – while carefully managed – is not as rigid and impenetrable as most American policy-makers imagine.

For example, several months after China put its first person into space in October 2003 I took my son to an exhibition on space exploration at the Haidian District Exhibition Hall in Beijing. The exhibit, titled “We Too Can Travel in Space,” focused on the history of China’s space program. But on the back wall were giant photos of the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia (see photo above), who had perished earlier that year when Columbia broke apart during re-entry.

Ever the cynic, I initially thought the intent was to set China’s recent success against a recent American failure. But off to the side was a monitor running a video montage of the history of the U.S. space program set to music and a recording of Ronald Reagan’s speech after the Challenger disaster. A reasonably accurate Chinese translation ran across the bottom of the screen. A group of Chinese children decked out in school uniforms and “Young Pioneer” red scarves were standing quietly, eyes fixed on the screen. I noticed them just as Reagan was saying “We’ve grown used to wonders in this century.” I could not help thinking how different the Chinese experience of the twentieth century had been.

I stood beside the students, unnoticed, and we watched a clip of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon as Reagan’s speech continued:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes, painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space.

The exhibition ran for five months. I don’t know how many thousands of Chinese school children saw it, but I am pretty sure they walked away from the experience with a better impression of NASA and the American space program than they see in the Chinese press or read about in school.


American politicians, diplomats, and military officials who dismiss the potential benefits of cooperation with China in space – and who opposed Bolden’s visit – focus on the risks of what America might lose rather than the benefits of what America might gain. Administrator Bolden may not have Reagan’s gift for speaking or a speechwriter like Peggy Noonan, but he actually flew the shuttle – four times. He could and should have made an effort to promote a more positive image of the U.S. and the U.S. space program in China, particularly among the students and young Chinese space professionals who would have come to hear him speak. Bolden’s visit was a chance to change hearts and minds – a micro investment in public diplomacy that would arguably buy a lot more security per tax dollar spent than big budget space war gizmos.

Of course, President Reagan also launched the “Star Wars” missile defense program and developed anti-satellite weapons, boosting the nascent military space race that now fuels negative Chinese perceptions of NASA as well as American suspicions about Chinese activities in space.

This mutual distrust is not without foundation. U.S. Defense Department requirements informed the planning and design of shuttle facilities at the Kennedy Space Center and NASA space shuttles carried classified military payloads. China’s Human Spaceflight Program and all of China’s space launch facilities are administered by the General Armaments Department of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The early U.S. Discoverer missions were a cover for the super-secret Corona satellite reconnaissance program, much like many of China’s “scientific” and “experimental” satellites are opaque public descriptions of space missions that may have military motives and applications.

Maintaining an unambiguous separation of civilian and military space programs or facilities is difficult for every space-faring nation. If that was the requirement NASA used in determining whether to engage in international cooperation then the agency would bar its doors to Russia, Japan, India, and the EU as well as China. The real source of opposition to cooperation with China in space does not lie in the possible connections between China’s military and civilian space activities, but in the troubled nature of U.S.-China relations. 

Some American policy-makers believe the Chinese bureaucrats who hosted Administrator Bolden serve a government that simply seeks to exploit cooperation to acquire militarily useful technology or increased domestic and international stature. Perhaps. But refusing to cooperate in space, even on space science and exploration missions where there is little risk of technology transfer, may not be the best U.S. policy response. Isolating China in space broadens the appeal of Chinese political leaders who harbor ill-will towards the United States and justifies their hostility in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of young, well-educated scientists and engineers employed by China’s space program as well as the broader Chinese public.

Moreover, there is little evidence that current prohibitions on cooperation inhibit the development of Chinese space technology. On the contrary, many hard-line Chinese space officials oppose cooperation with the United States because they believe it inhibits the development of indigenous Chinese space technology. The remarkable progress China has made since U.S. restrictions were put in place more than a decade ago lends credibility to those beliefs.

Cooperation may have risks but it also has benefits. It provides an opportunity for the U.S. to participate in the emerging Chinese domestic debate about the nature of its relationship with the United States, particularly among the young scientists and engineers destined to play a significant role in determining China’s future and the direction of its space program. Cooperative projects create a constituency within the space bureaucracy and within the upcoming generation that can call into question the negative and misleading narratives of others who see NASA as an arm of a U.S. military complex that seeks to exclude, constrain, and dominate China.

The next time a NASA administrator goes to China he or she should keep that in mind and take the opportunity, as directed in the in the final paragraph of NASA authorizing legislation, to

make every effort to enlist the support and cooperation of appropriate scientists and engineers of other countries and international organizations.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.