KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met with Wang Zhaoyao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), during a visit to Beijing last month that was organized – with congressional approval – to share information on air traffic management.

In a brief interview with reporters in front of the Delta IV Heavy launcher that is scheduled to carry NASA’s Orion crew vehicle on its first flight test Dec. 4, Bolden declined to be specific about the content of the bilateral talks with the military-controlled agency that manages China’s human-spaceflight plans. China is only the third nation to send humans into space, but so far it does not participate in the International Space Station partnership or, in a significant way, in planning for future human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

"For me, it was a listening opportunity," said Bolden, who also visited Chinese human-spaceflight facilities and met Chinese astronauts in 2010.

Earlier, he stressed the importance of international cooperation in human space exploration, but refused to "take the bait" on questions about the sensitive China issue.

"We talked about the things that I mentioned, agreements that we have now," he said in the brief interview. "We also talked to folk from both the China manned space agency and the national space agency. We heard their story … they understand the situation we’re in."

The "situation" is the congressional ban on NASA participation in bilateral space cooperation activities with China, enacted as part of the agency’s appropriations bill out of concern over technology transfer and human rights issues.

NASA has some minor cooperation programs with China in Earth science, which were allowed to continue when the restrictions were enacted under the sponsorship of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the retiring chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. The restrictions also allow participation in multilateral meetings that include China.

Bolden visited China at the end of the 23-nation International Forum for Aviation Research, which is chaired by Jaiwon Shin, associate NASA administrator for aeronautics. The organization, which met in Zhuhai, China, this year, describes its focus as "non-competitive aviation research and development related to global technical challenges such as those pertaining to emission, noise, security, safety, efficient operations and steps to reduce the impact of aviation on climate and the environment."

NASA did not mention the meeting with China’s manned space organization before or after Bolden’s visit. It came to light with a Chinese news account that included photos of Bolden and other U.S. officials in meeting with Wang.

"Both parties presented with each other’s latest development and follow-on planning for the manned space program, held an in-depth talk on the international manned space cooperation, exchanged opinions, and expressed the good will of strengthening the multilateral cooperations and communications," the Chinese organization said in an English-language press release accompanying the photos.

Asked if his Chinese human-spaceflight counterparts were interested in NASA’s plans, the NASA administrator replied "always."