When the leaders of two of the planet’s space superpowers – NASA and the European Space Agency – met in their first-ever webcast summit last month, they compared their war-shifted visions of the spaceflight advances and joint missions that could propel upcoming astronaut landings on the Moon and see robotic explorers parachuting onto Mars.
During the ESA-NASA conclave, staged in the penumbra of the Russia-Ukraine war, the heads of the Russian and Chinese space agencies were present only as specters that have conjured the overnight reshaping of aerospace alliances around the world.
“Since the 24th of February” – the day Russia launched its lightning war on Ukraine – “the world order has changed, and is still changing,” exclaimed ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher. These seismic shifts are transforming not only the Earth, but also the heavens, and travel between the two realms, he added.
Praising NASA Administrator Bill Nelson for proposing the use of U.S. rockets to speed Europe’s stranded ExoMars rover to the dunes of Mars, Aschbacher said since the outbreak of war, the accord binding ESA and NASA has expanded and “intensified.” ESA’s billion-dollar robot was slated to lift off for the Red Planet on a Russian launcher, but the European agency, like NASA, has frozen almost all space liaisons with Moscow.
In the webcast press conference spotlighting the ESA and NASA leaders, where the reporters and even the specific questions were intricately screened and selected by the European side, some journalists asked about the aftershocks on the space sector of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s battle to restore Russia’s Iron Curtain empire.
But not a single reporter queried him about the other elephant in the room: China, its new nonaggression pact with Russia, its apparent backing for the Kremlin’s threats of nuclear war with NATO, and the race to modernize ASAT missiles that could shoot down European and U.S. ICBM-tracking satellites.
While the U.S. Congress has banned NASA from any interaction with the military-controlled China Manned Space Agency, a decade after Beijing launched its first taikonaut into orbit in 2003, ESA began building a tentative partnership with the rising power.
But now, space leaders and scholars stretching from Kyiv to London, along with a powerful U.S. senator, are urging ESA to swiftly suspend its collaboration with the increasingly threatening People’s Republic of China.
During the early, halcyon days of a space détente, European and Chinese mission planners launched joint training exercises as their combined astronaut squads practiced escaping from a mock Shenzhou capsule that “crashed” into the East China Sea. At the time, ESA director Rudiger Seine said the agency had “the goal of flying European astronauts on the Chinese space station from 2022.”
ESA astronauts Samantha Cristoforetti and Matthias Maurer, who have since flown to the International Space Station, joined the crash survival simulation under a 2015 pact linking ESA and the Chinese agency.
After being airlifted from the capsule “crash scene” by a Chinese helicopter, Maurer gushed: “We truly felt the spirit of belonging to one universal astronaut family, sharing the same values, goals, and vision.”
But this facade of universalism has cracked and crumbled over the past two years.
When the European Parliament moved to enforce the religious freedoms outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by imposing sanctions on the Chinese leaders running the concentration camps built to hold more than 1 million Muslim religious detainees, Beijing struck back at missile-speed.
China unveiled its own “counter-sanctions” against torchbearers across the European Parliament, including the legislature’s entire Subcommittee on Human Rights, and against free-speech champions in the U.K. Parliament.
In the escalating intercontinental skirmish, EU lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to condemn China’s attack on the democratic foundations of the European Parliament.
Beijing’s second major strike on universal peace and freedoms was set in motion when Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, announced a “no limits” partnership with Putin, on the eve of Russia’s blitz on Ukraine. The leaders pledged to jointly oppose NATO’s expansion and “color revolutions,” or pro-democracy movements like the one that liberated post-Soviet Ukraine or the more recent popular protests that were crushed in Hong Kong.
In the wake of threats by Putin that he could launch nuclear missiles against NATO nations, repeated by the head of the Russian space agency, China seemed to underscore its backing for this apocalyptic jousting by teaming up with the Russian air force to deploy nuclear-capable bombers to provocatively “buzz” Japanese airspace during U.S. President Joe Biden’s May trip to Tokyo.
The Beijing-Moscow strategic dyad, a united front against NATO and the forces of democracy, is imperiling Europe’s future and should trigger ESA to abandon its plans to fly astronauts to China’s orbital station, said Volodymyr Usov, who until 2021 headed the State Space Agency of Ukraine.
“It’s clear to almost everyone that Putin got approval for his invasion in Beijing,” Usov told The Diplomat. “The latest information about Putin seeking Chinese support to continue the war proves this once again.”
“If Europe rejects any collaboration in space with Russia it should follow the same logic with China,” added Usov, who now heads a new space start-up called Kurs Orbital, which designs cutting-edge spacecraft that can repair orbiting satellites that have been “wounded,” or pull them out of trajectories threatened by shrapnel created by ASAT attacks.
Greg Autry, a one-time NASA leader who is now a visiting scholar at Imperial College London, agrees: “China’s joint pact with Moscow to repress democratic movements and tacit support for Putin’s war in Ukraine should compel ESA to halt all cooperation with that regime, permanently.”
“It is bizarre to even consider working with a nation that has locked people into camps based on religion and executes more people than all other nations on Earth combined,” added Autry, a senior space strategy advisor to former U.S. President Donald Trump, and co-author of the book-turned-documentary “Death by China.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a longstanding champion in the U.S. Congress of trans-border space projects – including the International Space Station and the future lunar landings – said that as China and Russia join forces to destroy democracies and replace them with dictatorships, and to weaponize the space realm, U.S. allies should cut all ties with Beijing’s aerospace apparatchiks.
Rubio, who as vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been tracking China’s long-time cyberespionage against NASA and the build-up of its space and nuclear weaponry, warned in an interview: “The threat posed by collaboration with the Chinese space agency pre-dates Beijing’s support of Putin’s war and will exist well into the future.”
When the ISS was in danger of being de-orbited, Rubio teamed up with his fellow senator from Florida, which hosts the leading-edge Kennedy Space Center, to save the station into the future. Rubio has since strengthened that alliance with the one-time senator – now NASA’s chief, Bill Nelson – and wields a strong influence on human spaceflight planning.
The China-Russia compact to oppose NATO’s enlargement, and joint war games against mock NATO targets, have instead blown up in their face. Even as Sweden and Finland seek fast-track approval to join the alliance, NATO issued a new mission statement that lists China as a strategic challenge for the first time ever.
China “is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal,” NATO states in the new Strategic Concept manifesto. “The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order” threaten the entire bloc, including in the space realm.
“NATO and the United States have not been pleased with ESA’s direction in regard to cooperation with China on human spaceflight,” said James Clay Moltz, dean of the Graduate School of International and Defense Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and author of the book “Asia’s Space Race.”
NATO’s new indictment of Beijing, including its military ambitions in space, might prove to be the ultimate death knell in ESA’s mulling whether to dispatch its astronauts to the Chinese orbital observatory.
Before NATO released its revised security overview, the head of ESA’s Council, Anna Rathsman, said in an interview that the joint training of European and Chinese astronauts has already been frozen due to another crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic that is still spiraling across the planet.
One of Europe’s leading aerospace engineers, Rathsman also heads the Swedish National Space Agency. During the ESA-NASA summit, she joined Aschbacher in making one overarching request: that a European astronaut touches down to crisscross the age-old craters of the Moon when NASA-led landings resume about three years from now.
A quick re-sketching of NASA’s current plans for the first lunar mission could, in one fell swoop, fulfill this supreme wish by its closest space ally, provide a destination for ESA astronauts that immeasurably outshines any space station, and highlight the goals and unity of the pro-peace space alliance.
Under NASA’s original masterplan, four U.S. astronauts would be rocketed into lunar orbit aboard the Orion spacecraft, and rendezvous with a SpaceX Starship that ferries at least two explorers to the ancient sphere’s surface.
The SpaceX capsule – the most advanced spacecraft ever designed by humanity – was originally slated to lift off from Earth with just two pilots aboard. But the titan-size Starship can blast more than a dozen spacefarers to the Moon, and its manifest can be altered, virtually for free, to include pilots from ESA, NASA, Canada, and Japan – the Pacific allies on the ISS – and perhaps one Ukrainian cosmonaut.
These astronauts, by landing together on the Moon, could celebrate the lofty ideals of exploring the cosmos in the spirit of universalism – without the moral tarnish of cooperating with a repressive regime on Earth.