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U.S. and China agree to explore space cooperation

Nations plan to discuss expanded cooperation in space science and to start a "dialogue" on human space flight and exploration, according to a joint statement.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--The United States and China have agreed to discuss expanded cooperation in space science and to start a "dialogue" on human space flight and exploration, according to a joint statement released in Beijing on Tuesday. The U.S.-China Joint Statement said both nations looked forward to reciprocal visits by the NASA administrator and appropriate Chinese space leaders in 2010.

"The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity, and mutual benefit," the joint statement said. "Both sides welcome reciprocal visits of the NASA administrator and the appropriate Chinese counterpart in 2010."

President Obama visits the Forbidden City in Beijing. Pete Souza/White House

John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at George Washington University, said expanded cooperation makes sense, but only if both sides are open with each other and share the technical data necessary to ensure safe operations.

"I think it's great," he said in a telephone interview. "It opens the door to see whether, in fact, there's a basis for cooperation. I think the operative word in there is 'transparency.' If China is willing to provide the information we need to work with them and vice versa--they were the ones who have been somewhat reticent to do that--I think it makes total sense."

The future direction of the U.S. manned space program is unclear as NASA waits for the Obama administration to make a decision on how the agency should proceed after the space shuttle is retired next year.

The Bush administration directed NASA to finish the space station and retire the shuttle by the end of 2010 and to develop a new family of safer, less expensive rockets to service the International Space Station and to help launch manned moon missions by the early 2020s.

NASA developed the Constellation program and the Ares family of manned and unmanned rockets to meet that challenge, but the agency has not been given the funding needed to carry out the program under the original schedule.

An independent review of manned space options was carried out this summer at the request of the Obama administration. The panel concluded NASA would need an additional $6 billion a year to fund the Constellation program and extend the International Space Station program through 2020.

The panel presented four other options as well, including one to encourage private industry to take over launching astronauts to low-Earth orbit while NASA focuses on long-term deep space exploration.

The Obama administration has not yet indicated a favored option. In the meantime, NASA is proceeding with plans to finish the space station and retire the shuttle next year.

No matter what happens, it appears the United States will not have a shuttle replacement ready to fly for at least five to seven years. In the interim, NASA plans to pay the Russians to launch U.S. astronauts to the space station aboard Soyuz capsules at $50 million a seat.

The International Space Station is operated as a cooperative venture among the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan. Complex inter-agency agreements govern the lab's operation, the nationalities of the international crews, and how data is exchanged.

The Chinese have launched three manned space missions since 2003, boosting one, two, and three crewmen into orbit respectively, and staging a spacewalk during the most recent flight in 2008.

Responding to a query from CBS News, a NASA spokesman said "adding any international partner to the International Space Station program would require a formal decision by the U.S. government and consultation and agreement among the governments of all of the International Space Station partners. To date, discussions of any type of human space flight cooperation with China has been outside the scope of our bilateral discussions."

Questions about how China might participate in the space station program "need to be discussed, especially since it seems we are going to be operating the station for the next decade," Logsdon said. "If the terms and conditions can be mutually agreed to, I think it would be a great thing."

As for whether U.S. astronauts might one day ride Chinese rockets and vice versa, Logsdon said "20 years ago, launching U.S. astronauts on Russian rockets was inconceivable. But we're doing it, and it's soon going to be the only way to get to station."

"The more systems we have to carry people into space, the better off I think the world is," he said.

Speaking to reporters in Japan, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander, said cooperation on the high frontier could pay dividends for both countries.

"I am perfectly willing, if that's the direction that comes to me, to engage the Chinese in trying to make them a partner in any space endeavor," Bolden said, according to Agence France-Presse. "I think they're a very capable nation.

"They have demonstrated their capability to do something that only two other nations that have done, that is, to put humans in space. And I think that is an achievement you cannot ignore."

He said China is a nation "that is trying to really lead" and that if the two space powers cooperate, "we would probably be better off than if we would not," AFP reported.

UPDATED at 7:55 p.m. CST: Adding NASA response to query about possible Chinese participation in space station program.