The Complex

This Congressman Kept the U.S. and China From Exploring Space Together

Long-serving Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia announced his retirement on Tuesday -- a move that's being met with cheers across America's, and the world's, space community. The congressman has repeatedly, consistently used his position as chairman of the relevant appropriations subcommittee to thwart international cooperation in space.

Perhaps his most consequential -- and most ridiculous -- legacy: Year after year, Wolf did everything he could to utterly prevent NASA from working with China in any capacity.

Space is unique in its borderlessness; a satellite could fly over dozens of nations in a single orbit. It is also mind-bogglingly expensive, so cooperation between national space programs -- sharing the massive costs and risks -- is very common, and increasingly so. Because of its inherently international status, everything about using space -- from communications frequencies to orbital slots -- has to be hammered out by international agreement, or at least discussed among the international community. China has one of the foremost space programs in the world, and it lags behind only Russia and the United States (and in some cases Europe) in virtually all measures. (And in some others China has pulled ahead.) On the topic of space, where international cooperation is so crucial not simply for coordination of national programs but cooperating for mutual benefit, it would be terribly counterproductive to wholly ignore such a participant, wouldn't it?

Not according to Wolf. Under legislation sponsored and largely championed by Wolf, NASA is wholly prohibited from spending money on any collaboration with China. That means no NASA employees attending Chinese-sponsored conferences, it means no calls to the Chinese National Space Agency on NASA phones, it definitely means no putting components or scientific instruments on one another's spacecraft (for reference, NASA's Curiosity rover has crucial parts and instruments from Canada, Germany, Spain, Finland, Russia, and many others). "If my Chinese counterpart comes here, I'm forbidden to even buy him a cup of coffee," said one high-ranking NASA employee after yet another Wolf missive landed on his desk.

In fact the U.S. ban means a one-or-the-other choice for other nations: Because the United States cannot collaborate with China on any international projects, partners must all spend money either in a U.S. partnership or a Chinese one. It is said that China wanted to buy in to the International Space Station consortium, a program that could certainly use the money, but was barred from doing so by U.S. refusal. So China launched its own space station, Tiangong-1, and is planning a much larger and more capable follow-on. In scientific and economic realms, U.S. institutions are busy forging bonds in China that affect the policy of both governments. Space can be a unique, mutually beneficial stage for collaboration and geopolitical trust-building measures; instead, it is currently a matter of distrust and fear.

Few doubt (at least publicly) that Wolf's concern is genuine. In 1996, before most of these regulations, a Chinese rocket carrying an American satellite blew up after launch, and China used the subsequent investigation to get the secrets of the satellite's design. The result was a modification of the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) law, placing satellites, spacecraft, and related components solidly on the United States Munitions List (USML) and removing authority to reclassify from the president. Placement on the USML means long and arduous reviews by the government to even discuss relevant plans with foreign nationals. The change was a disaster for the U.S. space manufacturing industry. The space industry is both highly competitive and highly international, and the new demands added costs and complications that many foreign companies simply declined to bear.

A famous incident was that of Bo Jiang, a contractor working on optics at NASA Langley. Suspicion first fell on Bo when Rep. Wolf held a press conference to declare that anonymous NASA employees had advised him of security lapses regarding Bo, who was detained at the airport before his departure to China. At the same press conference, Wolf called on NASA to take down all public information for a security review, including the voluminous NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) that contains virtually the sum-total of NASA's scientific studies, and begin a massive review of all foreign nationals at NASA. Bo was released, cleared of espionage, and NTRS came back online with almost zero changes. NASA, highly technical administration that it is, employs and contracts a large number of foreigners, and the disruption was enormous.

This is but one issue stemming from Wolf, at great frustration to NASA's employees. Wolf's legacy in preventing cooperation with China will almost certainly be reversed eventually -- the costs of such stringent legislation are simply too great to ignore. In the meantime, Wolf's retirement will bring an end to one of the most adversarial relationships NASA has with its political overseers.

Who replaces Wolf at the subcommittee's helm is yet to be determined, but it is difficult to envision another chairman so disparaging. Many NASA employees will breathe a happy sigh of relief tonight.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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