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US-China space freeze may thaw with new commercial pathway

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-06-06 09:29

CAPE CANAVERAL - For the first time, the International Space Station (ISS) houses an experiment independently designed by China.

Space cooperation between the United States and China has been a taboo until now. However, the Chinese commercial science project is on board the orbiting outpost on Monday morning in what could be the forerunner of a larger US-China space cooperation agenda.

Commercial partnership

No commercial Chinese payload has ever flown to the ISS before. However, SpaceX made history with its Dragon spacecraft in a resupply mission.

The spacecraft lifted off on the US space firm's Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was captured by the space station's robotic arm on Monday morning.

Among its almost 2,700-kg supplies to the International Space Station, a 3.5-kg scientific payload designed by the Beijing Institute of Technology will be used to investigate how space radiation and microgravity cause gene mutation.

The project will focus on mutations to genes encoding antibodies, parts of the immune system that identify foreign objects, according to the research team. "The results will answer some very important and fundamental questions on life sciences," Deng Yulin, who leads the Chinese research, told Xinhua.

This is not the first Chinese experiment on the ISS, but "this is the first time an ISS experiment has been independently designed and fabricated in China," Deng said.

NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that offers services for the commercial utilization of the space station, has signed an agreement in 2015 with the Beijing Institute of Technology to fly the first China-designed experiment to the ISS.

Under the agreement, NanoRacks offers the service to deliver the Chinese science project to the US side of the space station and astronauts there will conduct experiments twice using NanoRacks' device in about 20 days. Deng told Xinhua that NanoRacks offered his team "very favorable terms".

New pathway

"Commercial is a pathway that is good for opening new doors. It has no symbolism, no 'flags' it is based on requirements and it can be structured to meet the concerns of all parties. I believe commercial is the pathway forward for greater cooperation with Chinese companies and educational organizations," Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, told Xinhua in an email.

Many space-policy experts said they viewed the agreement as a significant step in shaping possible future joint work by the two space-faring nations.

"This is an aerospace business in Florida, but it also means a new international partnership with the Chinese university and research institute," Tony Gannon, director of business development at Space Florida, told Xinhua.

"It shows growing trends what we call commercial space, while not by just federal agencies and government sending up science, but indeed universities and commercial partnerships also are seeking answers using micro gravity as a method to discover the truth of science and indeed further mankind's efforts in research," Gannon said.

Obeying laws

Over the past few years, a US law, known as the Wolf amendment, has prohibited NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from cooperating with China on space activities.

In the 2011 United States federal budget, US Republican Congressman Frank Wolf inserted a clause prohibiting NASA and the OSTP from any joint scientific activity with China for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year.

Wolf retired in January 2015, but the law is still in effect today.

However, the NanoRacks deal is a commercial arrangement, which is considered legal. The company "worked hard to understand first why there is a reluctance on the part of some in America to work with the Chinese and to meet those objections, rather than fight those objections," Manber said.

"We kept all this in mind in moving forward. We received cooperation from the White House and from Congress and from members of both political parties," he said.

"NASA complied with all legal requirements to notify the Congress of this activity, and all of the ISS partners approved the inclusion of the experiment," NASA spokesperson Kathryn Hambleton told Xinhua in an email.

Scientists' vision

There are more and more organizations and people who do wish to broaden relations with China in civil and commercial projects.

"There has been no official cooperation in the space field between China and the US for a long time, so I hope this project enables us to explore cooperation methods between the two space powers," Deng said.

Leroy Chiao, a former Chinese-American NASA astronaut and ISS commander, also highlighted the significance of the Chinese project. "I think this is a good step forward," Chiao said, "I have always believed that cooperation is the best way forward for both the United States and China, particularly using civil space exploration as an avenue."

"I believe that in the areas of civil and commercial there can be more cooperation, just as there is on the earth," Manber said.

The CEO does not believe in cooperation "for the sake of symbolism." "Let's figure out ways to work together where we both gain while taking into account all parties legitimate technology, IP and security concerns, just was we do in commercial partnerships in mature markets."

In Fact, given that the rest of the world is working with China in space, the Wolf amendment is becoming the lone holdout.

"We have to open this door, and we will do our part for the state of Florida to make space accessible to all international clients, researchers and institutes," Gannon said.

Good reputation

Chinese scientists and researchers "have proved themselves to be true scientists," said Gannon, who hopes in the future more and more people can take advantage of the unique environment of the ISS.

The Beijing Institute of Technology's School of Life Science often publishes its results in Western scientific journals and interacts with the international research communities and multiple US universities.

"It (the university) is a good example. It's really an important research and the team have done a great job," Mary Murphy, senior internal payloads manager of NanoRacks, told Xinhua, calling the cooperation between the two sides "a new model that can be followed in the future."

Gannon echoed the idea, saying the cooperation testifies to a growing trend of commercial space cooperation, undertaken not by government bodies but by universities and commercial partnerships. "(The experiment) seeks answers using micro gravity as a method to discover the truth of science and indeed further mankind's efforts in research."

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