NASA seems to be embarking on a new era of space diplomacy. An accord to cooperate with India on an unmanned moon mission was sewn up this week and talks are on the horizon with China, a potential competitor that wants to land on the moon.
It's no surprise the U.S. space agency is seeking fresh collaboration with two emerging economic powers, space experts said, since what happens in space is often driven by politics on the ground. Earlier this year, President Bush met with leaders of both India and China.
"It's clearly aligned with the foreign policy views of the current administration," said Eligar Sadeh, a space studies professor at the University of North Dakota. "Space is a visible and symbolic area of cooperation that is often used for political purposes ... and specific foreign policy initiatives."
During a visit to the Indian Space Research Organization in Bangalore earlier this week, NASA administrator Michael Griffin, said he hoped to expand the United States' space partnership with India "on many more technically challenging and scientifically rewarding projects."
India already has a well-regarded space program focused on satellites. In 2007 or 2008, it will send up its first lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, with two U.S. instruments aboard.
That collaboration came less than a year after President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reached several strategic cooperation agreements.
"NASA's participation is a welcome sign," said S. Krishnamurthy, director of public relations for the Indian Space Research Organization.
The United States helped India set up its rocket launch station in the 1960s, and the two nations have shared satellite data and signed more than 100 space agreements in the past.
In recent years, India's nuclear policy thwarted more cooperation. In 1998, the United States imposed temporary sanctions after India conducted nuclear tests. The last significant new space accord between the two nations was signed five years ago. In March, though, the United States said it would agree to share American nuclear knowledge and fuel with India, even though India won't sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"Now that the White House has indicated a desire to treat India as an important strategic partner, cooperation in high visibility areas such as space is a good way to symbolize that relationship," John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in an e-mail.
The United States has a long history of using its space program for diplomatic ends. The in-flight rendezvous between the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in 1975 was the result of detente between the two Cold War enemies. The construction of the international space station has helped engage Russia and strengthen alliances with Europe and Japan.
Although NASA press secretary Dean Acosta said Griffin's trip to India had nothing to do with the upcoming visit to China, the success in India may give the NASA chief a little leverage, said James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
No date or agenda has been set yet for the China trip.
"If he can go to China with agreements with other partners, like India, it doesn't give the sense that we're desperate," Lewis said. "It's not like we're coming with bent knees to the Chinese."
Such a perception is important given some U.S. policymakers view China as a potential competitor in the race to return humans to the moon. President Bush offered to send Griffin to China last month during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington.
Cooperating in space was seen as an effort "to deepen the relationship between our two societies and our two cultures," Acosta said in an e-mail.