— Informal talks with China about commercial space are entering a more expansive phase.
— Is it time for Congress to revive the Office of Technology Policy?
— NASA stakes a billion dollars on Venus, giving Mars some competition for exploration dollars.
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SLOWLY BUT STEADILY: U.S. law bars NASA from working with China’s space industry but academics and nongovernmental organizations from the erstwhile competitors are steadily increasing their engagement. And they are eying stepping it up a notch this fall, planning focused, elevated, and difficult discussions between space industry stakeholders in both countries via so-called “Track II” back channel diplomacy, a pair of the American organizers tells us.
The informal contacts have been taking place since April 2019 in the form of three workshops, a hybrid of in-person and online, to discuss broad topics of common interest and engage in Q&A. The sessions have also included government observers from the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
But the two sides are now eyeing this fall for a more robust engagement, according to Ian Christensen, director of private sector programs at the Secure World Foundation, and Rob Ronci, executive director of the Caelus Foundation, who have been working with the Chinese Society of Astronautics.
“Everything up until now has been a pretty rapid but steady building up of the relationship and how the process works,” said Christensen. “I’d say it’s moving to more systematic discussion. We have a plan in with our Chinese partners to hold small group working conversations this fall, focused on issues that arose in prior workshops, of interest to both US and Chinese stakeholders.’”
As for the U.S. government side, he said that State Department officials have been briefed on the developments, and that “they are aware of our intent to move in that direction.” The State Department did not respond to a request to comment.
What will be different about the next phase? The next phase will more closely resemble Track II diplomacy, which has been relied on heavily in the past as a first step in opening up dialogue between adversaries and “brings together unofficial representatives on both sides, with no government participation,” according to a recent primer from the U.S. Institute of Peace. “They are not government-to-government meetings. What they offer is a private, open environment for individuals to build trust, hold conversations that their official counterparts sometimes cannot or will not, and discuss solutions.”
So far, the workshops have included broad discussions and refrained from any technical discussions to avoid running afoul of strict export rules. In one example, both sides delivered presentations on space tourism. “We’ve had academic participation, we’ve had NGO participation , and we’ve had several industry speakers as well,” said Christensen. “We’ve had U.S government observers; no formal U.S. government presenters. Also we have semi-regularly briefed government officials here in the U.S. both in State in D.C. as well as within other parts of the executive branch.”
“As for the Chinese side, “they have brought speakers, including from the China National Space Administration and major aerospace state-owned enterprises. We’ve also had participation from some of China’s so-called private space companies.”
Any points of debate? There were some interesting, not really heated, but debating points like our two sides were directly engaging,” Ronci related. “There was a direct rebuttal about the suggestion that our form of commercial space is different from theirs. Our Chinese counterparts were like ‘no we have the same thing and ours works fine.”
More details coming: “Also we are working on a detailed report to try to make it as transparent and out there as possible,” said Ronci. “We are in the process of getting the information, interviewing some of our people who participated, and gathering insights.” In the meantime, the foundations are offering briefings on this activity for those who don’t want to wait for the report.
IT’S ALL ABOUT TIMING: The chair of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics said Thursday that the most serious impediment this year to tackling the host of pressing space issues is simply the congressional calendar. “The biggest roadblock is just time,” Rep. Don Beyer told Jamie Morin of the Aerospace Corporation on the latest edition of the Space Policy Show podcast.
Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, related that after hearing from members of the oversight panel on what they’d like to address, “I got enough of what I thought was three years worth. So, I talked to the staff and they said it’s actually five years.”
What’s at the top of the list? “The focus this year, though, is first and foremost, to reauthorize the NASA budget,” said Beyer. “We have a head start. I very much hope we can get that done this year.”
Another major focus of his tenure is going to be the role of the space agency in combating climate change, a major pillar of President Joe Biden’s new NASA budget request. “Much of what we know about climate change was discovered through NASA and certainly all our measurements are very much dependent on NASA’s measurement ability,” Beyer said. “Our next Space Committee hearing is specifically on the Earth science that NASA does.”
‘A Luddite streak’: Anyone remember the Office of Technology Assessment, the office in Congress that used to compile scientific and technical analysis but was shut down in 1995 after the GOP sweep of both houses of Congress? Could it be time to revive it? Beyer seems to think so.
“There’s a Luddite streak in the American character, which doesn’t skip Congress, sadly,” he told Morin. “However, I think it’s pretty clear that as technologically dependent as we were in 1995, we are much more so. Bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment would be a great idea. I’m not aware that anyone has actually introduced legislation this year to do that. I would be astonished if it doesn’t get introduced sometime this calendar year.”
But he said it remains a mystery “how much it would be funded” or “how much support it would have.”
Related: Congress asks GAO to review cybersecurity risks at NASA, via NASA Watch.
LOVING VENUS: NASA announced this week it is planning to send a pair of probes to our evil twin Venus for the first time in three decades.
The space agency is dedicating a total of billion dollars “to understand how Venus became an inferno-like world when it has so many other characteristics similar to ours — and may have been the first habitable world in the solar system, complete with an ocean and Earth-like climate,” it said.
DAVINCI+, the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging program, “will measure the composition of Venus’ atmosphere to understand how it formed and evolved.”
VERITAS, which stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy, “will map Venus’ surface to determine the planet’s geologic history and understand why it developed so differently than Earth.” Both are part of the Discovery Program.
“They will offer the entire science community the chance to investigate a planet we haven’t been to in more than 30 years,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.
The efforts will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Related: Move over, Mars, via The Atlantic.
No one correctly answered that the first asteroid to have its spin period determined by its changing colors as it spins is 4 Vesta, one of the largest objects in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.
THIS WEEK’S QUESTION: What was the Ray Bradbury short story about Venus and when and where did it publish?
The first person to email [email protected] gets bragging rights and a shoutout in the next newsletter!
— NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is delayed — again: Scientific American
— Space Force to develop tech for new types of launch: Breaking Defense
— New Zealand signs Artemis Accords: Space News
— BOOK REVIEW: Beyond: The Space Review
— Dating app for space tourists finds niche among the stars: New Zealand Herald
TODAY: The Hudson Institute holds a discussion on incorporating national security in federal spectrum policy at noon.
TODAY: NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is scheduled to hold his first talks with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Rogozin.
WEDNESDAY: The Space Foundation holds a symposium on the future of the U.S. space architecture at 1 p.m.
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