Last week NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told an audience at Gettysburg College the U.S. space agency is resuming cooperation with China on space geodesy. Geodesy is the science of measurement of the size, shape, rotation, and gravitational field of the Earth and the study of geodesy incorporates a variety of space-based measurements. NASA and China have a cooperative agreement on space geodesy first signed in 1997 and renewed in 2010. Activities under that agreement were suspended after Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) attached language to a continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government in April 2011. The language forbids NASA “to develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement, or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses his fondest memory of his time working for the U.S. space program prior to assuming his current post. . Video courtesy of C-Span
Bolden said the decision to lift the suspension was reached through discussion with Representative Wolf, who the NASA Administrator and former shuttle pilot referred to as a “great friend” with whom he has a “difference of opinion” on cooperation with China. Bolden commanded the first mission of the Shuttle-Mir program, an experience that increased his appreciation for the benefits of international cooperation (see video above). The discussion with Wolf took place before Bolden traveled to Beijing to attend the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in late September. During a private meeting with the president of the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) held on the sidelines of the IAC, the two organizations also agreed to work together as part of a multinational effort to monitor glacial movement in the Himalayas.
By agreeing to resume cooperation under a bilateral agreement between NASA and CAS, Wolf is violating the spirit and the letter of his own law. Although the decision to resume basic scientific cooperation between NASA and CAS is commendable, the manner in which Representative Wolf is exercising oversight is not. His arbitrary approach to enforcement of the ban he imposed on NASA is confusing, and makes it difficult for NASA officials to determine what forms of cooperation are permitted under the law.
For example, NASA officials recently denied Chinese applicants permission to attend the Kepler Science Conference because it was being held at the NASA Ames Research Center. The denial was based on their interpretation of the intent of the language in Wolf’s law. Earlier in the year Wolf severely criticized the leadership at NASA Ames for allowing young Chinese engineers to attend a session of the International Space University held at the Ames facility in 2009.
After two prominent U.S. scientists announced they would boycott the Kepler Science Conference if the Chinese could not attend—an incident that caused considerable embarrassment both to NASA and to Representative Wolf— NASA extended an invitation for the Chinese applicants to re-apply. The invitation followed a rambling but sharply-worded letter from Representative Wolf referencing his discussion with Bolden.
Bolden, a former fighter pilot who flew over 100 combat missions during the Vietnam War and retired as a Major General in the U.S. Marine Corps, insisted NASA “did not reverse itself” on the question of Chinese attendance at the conference. He suggested the confusion over the Chinese applications was connected to the government shutdown. Bolden did complain, however, that the terms of Wolf’s ban are “a lot more restrictive than Congress thinks they are” and that the law “puts NASA in a pretty tight box” when it comes to engagement with China. The head of the U.S. space agency also warned the audience at Gettysburg that similar controversies “are certain to happen again” as long as the existing language on China remains a part of U.S. law.
Bolden’s explanation of his discussion with Wolf and its consequences demonstrates that NASA’s authority to make basic decisions regarding ordinary scientific exchanges—decisions as routine as attendance at academic conferences—has been stripped away from the responsible NASA officials, who have no way of knowing what forms of cooperation are permitted without asking Wolf personally. In effect, these decisions are now up to the discretion of a single member of Congress rather than the law—which can be violated when Wolf approves but can still be used to punish NASA for engaging in forms of cooperation Wolf might find objectionable..
Wolf’s behavior sets a troubling precedent with implications greater than the controversy over NASA cooperation with China. Members of Congress often use the authority of their office to promote personal issues, such as a major construction project in their home state or congressional resolutions commending the heroism of a local teacher or fire fighter. But Representative Wolf’s decision to use the budget crisis to impose his personal foreign policy preferences on the Obama administration is different.
The subchapter on international cooperation in NASA’s charter, the National Aeronautics and Space Act, states:
“In carrying out the provisions of this subchapter, the Administration, subject to the direction of the President and after consultation with the Secretary of State, shall make every effort to enlist the support and cooperation of appropriate scientists and engineers of other countries and international organizations.”
NASA’s charter recognizes the space agency’s authority to engage in international cooperation is a matter of foreign policy. Wolf’s heavy-handed use of his role as an appropriator to usurp this authority violates the spirit and quite possibly the letter of the U.S. constitution, which grants the Executive the power to negotiate and sign agreements with foreign nations.
Regardless of one’s views on the propriety of contact between NASA and its Chinese counterparts, allowing a single member of Congress to exercise a personal veto over who gets to attend science conferences is not a proper or productive way to oversee a space agency or U.S. foreign policy.