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Cheering for China

The Obama administration says the US is on the brink of an exciting new phase of space exploration, but old hands fear the show is over. Rebecca Trager reports.

The US space programme is at a crossroads. The Obama administration and leaders of space agency NASA have said the nation is embarking on a new age of discovery in the cosmos. But the termination of the shuttle programme, the cancellation of the existing launching-rocket and spacecraft programmes, and the layoffs of thousands of aerospace workers, tell a different story.

At a House of Representatives hearing on 22 September, space icon Neil Armstrong accused NASA of failing to articulate a master plan that excites the imagination and provides stability for the aerospace industry. The Apollo 11 commander lamented the fact that there was no US access to, or return from, low Earth orbit and the International Space Station for the foreseeable future.

For a country that has invested so much for so long to lead space exploration, Armstrong said the situation was “embarrassing and unacceptable.” In fact, there is no requirement for a NASA spacecraft commander any time soon.

At the hearing, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan testified that Obama was trying to “dismantle” a US space programme that had been five decades in the making. He cited the administration’s cancellation in February 2010 of the Constellation programme, a five-year, $10-billion replacement for the shuttle.

Embedded in Constellation’s architecture, Cernan said, was a “long-range building block” that could have carried US astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars, serviced the ISS, enhanced national security, and extended the life of the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble’s successor, the James Webb telescope, is also in jeopardy because of funding concerns. However, the administration said Constellation was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation because it had failed to invest in critical new technologies.

Cernan described NASA as “on a path of decay”, and said it had launched a “mission to nowhere” to replace Constellation that included no near or long-term goals, timetable or specific destination. But that changed on 14 September, when NASA finally announced the design of a new heavy-lift rocket Space Launch System that will be used in combination with a crew capsule already under development to take astronauts further into space than ever before. The agency wants to put astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, and on Mars in the 2030s.

NASA estimates that SLS will cost $18bn for an uncrewed test flight in 2017 and between $30 and $35bn for the first crewed test flight in 2021. These budgets cover the launch vehicle, space capsule and ground-support equipment only.

NASA’s announcement is a positive step that will inspire the country’s next generation of scientists and engineers. But the SLS could also cannibalise funds previously intended for research programmes and other projects. It could also strip the guts out of the commercial crew programmes intended to create a new US commercial space fleet to carry astronauts to the ISS rather than outsourcing the job to Russia.

The space race didn’t end 40 years ago. The US is still fighting to maintain its leadership as a space-faring nation. Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin warns that China’s space presence is about to surpass that of the US. “When the Chinese can reach the moon and we cannot, I don’t see why any other nation would regard us as a world leader,” he told the hearing.

But NASA administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, is cheering for China. “We can’t work with the Chinese right now, but I’m rooting for them,” he told a US Naval Institute conference on 17 September, referring to the prohibition of collaborations between NASA and China included in the 2011 appropriations.

China successfully launched its first space laboratory module on 29 September. Bolden, whom Republican lawmakers have criticised for being too close to China’s space agency, says China will likely fly two more spacecraft missions next year, the second of which will put astronauts in China’s new space station. “They need to be successful to drive us,” he asserted.

Bolden’s blunt remarks have often got him into trouble, but this was no gaffe. He’s hoping that alarm bells will sound when China is routinely putting taikonauts on its own space station and sending them to the moon. This could prompt the US to recommit to technology development in its space programme.

And Bolden isn’t alone in his thinking. At the naval conference, retired navy captain and former astronaut Wendy Lawrence said: “It’s time to root for the Chinese because it just may be that we need a good, swift kick in the pants.”

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