updated 9/22/2006 3:24:03 PM ET 2006-09-22T19:24:03

U.S. space officials will get a peek behind the closely guarded doors of China's space program next week during a visit that many experts believe is more about diplomacy than cooperation in technology.

President Bush asked NASA Administrator Michael Griffin to go to China last spring, following a visit from Chinese President Hu Jintao. During the four-day trip that starts Sunday, a delegation led by Griffin will meet with the head of the Chinese Aerospace Bureau and visit the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing before traveling to China's launch facility in the Gobi Desert.

"This is a get-acquainted session and it's nothing more," Griffin said this week.

The United States has never had significant space discussions with China, even though both countries, along with Russia, are the only nations that can launch people into orbit.

The chief obstacle to more space cooperation has been the military influence over China's space program. The military's presence proved dicey for some U.S. companies that tried to work with the Chinese in the late 1990s and early 2000s on launching satellites. They were accused by the U.S. government of giving the Chinese satellite and rocket technology that could be used for intercontinental missiles.

NASA says there will probably be no space cooperation agreements with China like the one the U.S. space agency produced from Griffin's visit to India in May. The U.S. space agency has agreements with other spacefaring nations, most notably Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan in building and operating the international space station.

The only areas where the United States and China might work together are in exchanging data on Earth science, managing the radio frequency spectrum, and controlling orbital debris, one NASA official suggested.

Some experts, though, doubt the U.S. would gain much from cooperating with China in space, especially since the U.S. program is so much more advanced.

James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, described the NASA visit as merely a "goodie bag" offered by President Bush during Hu's visit.

"Talking is swell ... as long as we get something in exchange other than that warm, fuzzy glow of knowing we're all friends," Lewis said. "I don't know what we get out of cooperation with the Chinese. I know what they get out of it — they get prestige. Maybe they get a little help with technology and spaceflight."

But Eligar Sadeh, a professor of space studies at the University of North Dakota, said there are always benefits from international cooperation and pointed to U.S.-Russia space cooperation as an example. During the 2 1/2 years that NASA's shuttle fleet was grounded after the Columbia disaster in 2003, the United States relied on the Russian Soyuz vehicle to ferry U.S. astronauts to the space station.

NASA's involvement in the space station program "probably would have been imperiled, if not outright terminated, had it not been for the Russian involvement," Sadeh said.

In a July interview with The Associated Press, Griffin described the trip as the first steps toward a more "routine relationship" with China.

"China is a strategic nation in this world," he said. "If they have reached the point where they're beginning to undertake significant activities in spaceflight, I think it's only to our benefit to explore those possibilities with them."

China has taken significant steps in the past five years, and its ambitious manned space program is a source of pride for its Communist leaders. China put its first astronaut in orbit in 2003, followed by two more astronauts last year. Leaders of China's space program have expressed an interest in sending people to the moon and building their own space station. Earlier this month, Chinese and Russian leaders announced their intention to sign a cooperative agreement on moon exploration.

The United States has its own plans to return astronauts to the moon and eventually go to Mars.

"The peaceful utilization of outer space is the common cause of mankind, and China is willing to cooperate with the U.S. and other countries in the outer space field," Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told The AP. "We hope that through such ties, we could establish a stable and friendly cooperation in outer space."

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