10/22/2013 09:37 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Gravity and American Exceptionalism in Outer Space

By now, you have already seen the new space thriller, Gravity (spoilers ahead). You may herald the tension as the astronauts dodge terrifying high-speed space debris, or praise its scientific accuracy (or inaccuracy). But there is another more subtle theme to appreciate: the multi-national cooperative -- and uncooperative -- nature of space exploration.

The International Space Station (ISS) makes several dramatic appearances. And Russia's Soyuz gets a starring role as its ill-fated escape vehicle, making a decent showing despite heavy damage from the rogue space junk.

And it should be no surprise: Soyuz is currently the United States' sole method for shuttling its astronauts to the ISS (though Gravity is set in a parallel reality where the Space Shuttle is still flying), and after nearly 30 years in operation, it's also the most cost-effective and reliable human space transport system to date.

Gone are the days of Russia vs. the U.S.

But ever-present are the days of the U.S. vs. China.

When Soyuz takes a beating too intense to go on, Sandra Bullock's Dr. Stone must shuttle to China's Shenzhou re-entry capsule, believed to have survived the catastrophe. But unlike Soyuz, Shenzhou is not docked to the ISS; China is not welcome aboard. Instead, it has its own station, Tiangong, situated in a separate orbit.

An interesting parable: isolated, yet still there, and pushing on, whether part of the team or not.

It turns out that Shenzhou's re-entry sequence is identical to that of Soyuz (Russia sold much of its own technology to China in the '90s), so Stone is able to pilot Shenzhou -- despite extensive damage -- safely back to Earth. No trite "Made in China" jokes here.

An American astronaut in a Chinese space ship? This truly is the stuff of science fiction, because it may just take a disaster of Gravity's proportions for that to happen.

Earlier this month, American researchers announced they would boycott a major NASA conference because scientists who are Chinese nationals are banned from attending. The policy -- which was recently reversed amid pressure from the international community -- was a result of NASA's interpretation of the moratorium on Chinese nationals' access to its facilities following this year's espionage indictment of Bo Jiang, a NASA contractor and Chinese national. He was eventually found innocent of spying, but still, Bo, the remaining 192 Chinese contractors who worked at NASA, and all further Chinese nationals were denied access.

Adding further fuel to the fire is the law which makes it illegal for 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 or any Chinese-owned company." The legislation's biggest champion, long-time China critic Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), grounds his rationale in espionage fears, China's human rights record, and the idea that "we don't want to give them the opportunity to take advantage of our technology, and we have nothing to gain from dealing with them." It's no wonder Tiangong is in another orbit.

Yet, still, China charges on.

And they do so with the backing of much of the international community. Two weeks ago, I attended the International Astronautical Congress held this year in Beijing. The Chinese space program was proudly on display, and international agencies eagerly arranged meetings with the rapidly developing program.

One panel featured the heads of the world's space agencies, including China's Dr. Ma Xingrui and NASA Administrator General Charlie Bolden. While positive overall, there were still some uncomfortable moments. Like when Administrator Bolden pronounced that the United States has "the best space program in the world." Awkward.

You could see the eyes rolling on stage, and hear the disapproving murmurs in the crowd.

That statement was made in front of thousands of people. On the same stage with all those "lesser" space programs. As a guest in a country that many would argue is kicking America's butt in space. A country that, unlike America, is one of only two with manned space flight capability, and is so critical a player that the European Space Agency has its astronauts learning to speak Chinese.

Admittedly, this statement seemed rather uncharacteristic of the affable, positive, and charismatic disposition Bolden is so famous for. However, as NASA's head, he is the Agency's designated political figure; his public message is a reflection of the politics of Washington and the Administration whose policies it is his job to represent -- whether he agrees with them or not. And that is an incredibly tough role to play.

But to exhibit such an overt expression of American Exceptionalism on an international stage? That was bold.

But was it effective?

NASA's debilitating budgetary and strategic foresight issues are not news. After having had to pull out of previously committed missions, the sequestration effects which have left NASA over $1 billion short of its requested budget, a deadlocked congress who cannot seem to agree on what NASA should be doing, and a government shutdown that left 97% of NASA employees furloughed, Exceptionalism claims, at least right now, seem a naïve.

But for argument's sake, let's say that Bolden was right. After all, the Chinese space program isn't exactly transparent, and some analysts argue its growth is unsustainable. But what message does the rhetoric of Exceptionalism send to our international partners, being told that they are a step below, merely along for the ride?

Now imagine we are indeed falling behind. The romantic bygone era of winning the Space Race is in the past. Wouldn't it make a stronger case for NASA funding if we were more honest about our competitive positioning -- especially given how much pride Americans take in being "the best?" We can bash them all we like, but there is a reason countries are so eager to work with China, and it's certainly not because the Chinese are failing.

This is not to downplay the geopolitical implications of the U.S.-China relationship, and this piece barely even scratches the surface of the complexities. But they aught not be reduced to tools for political posturing. In a conference hall full of multinational teams of scientists and engineers working towards a peaceful and collaborative future for humanity in space, platitudes simply do not resonate.

Instead, they stop the conversation in its tracks. They create false boundaries, boundaries that Gravity shows us when viewed from the orbital perspective, mean absolutely nothing. Because if it weren't for international partnerships, the movie would have ended a lot less optimistically.

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