Space-Race Parable Shows U.S. as |Hare to Winning Chinese Tortoise

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly 50 years after the United States put a man on the moon, experts testified Tuesday that China may finally be poised to usurp America’s dominance in space exploration as soon as 2020.
     The Obama administration cut $1 billion from NASA’s budget in 2010, and Republicans and Democrats alike on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee agreed during the hearing that this gave the Chinese government a coveted window of opportunity.
     “This vaccum of leadership has led to extended dependence on Russia for space program development but it also facilitated the ascendance of China as a leading space faring nation,” said Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas Republican who chairs the committe.
     Babin also offered a thinly veiled criticism of the administration’s efforts to combat climate change, saying that Obama opted to “redirect more money to earth science in order to further his own radical political agenda.”
     “Rather than inspiring other nations [to engage in space exploration projects with the U.S.], he’s alienated us,” Babin added.
     A panel of experts brought before the committee to testify about China’s pathway to space unanimously acknowledged that the communist nation has already put a series of projects in motion that could alter the way other world powers, and even developing countries, seek funding for space voyages now and in the future.
     Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said China has plans to land on the moon next year, send an unmanned space craft to the dark side of the moon and put a rover on Mars by 2020.
     Shea also testified that the Chinese National Space Administration is poised to complete its own single module space station by 2022.
     “China’s climb to its current status as one of the world’s top space powers is the result of decades of leadership attention, steady investment and an effort to buy or obtain foreign technology from other countries like the U.S.,” Shea said.
     Some of that research and development, along with China’s budget for such programming, were details which Shea said are largely shrouded in mystery to outside powers. Shea also alluded that the information China has at its disposal has likely come as a result of the government’s “large scale theft of intellectual property through cyberattacks.”
     Each witness concurred that, while the motives for China’s jockeying into a global leadership position may not be ominous, it would be unpalatable and daunting if the U.S. were forced to work within a framework constructed by the Chinese government, without NASA’s input.
     “We don’t want a tortoise-and-hare situation where the once slow-moving China passes the U.S.,” testified Dr. James Lewis, senior vice president and director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We do not want a situation where China’s leaders think that the U.S. has great capability, but not will.”
     Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, asked the panelists to explain why Americans should care at all about the Chinese surpassing the U.S. in the “great space race.”
     Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, responded simply to Brooks’ question.
     “Politics is about perception as much as reality,” Cheng said. “China has presented itself a winner. The problem is how the U.S. is perceived in the context of international competition.”
     More than a matter of competition, Shea argued that a lost foothold in the space race could have a negative impact on the U.S. economy once voyages are underway — as other nation states may be less inclined to pour funds into NASA programming that could ultimately be outdated.
     Committee members agreed that though rapidly developing commercial space exploration programs like Blue Horizon or SpaceX are worthy endeavors, federally funded programs are better positioned to take on the Chinese in the next five years and beyond. Federally sanctioned programs also tend to make collaborations with other countries more likely, which is a boon for a cash-strapped space program.
     “Other countries like cooperating with the U.S. and with NASA, but to get to that, you actually need to have the programs that promise immediate and tangible results,” Lewis said. “I don’t think working with the private sector is an adequate strategy.”
     With Obama closing out his second term, the next president could have a significant impact on whether space remains a priority for the United States. Regardless of who that president may be, Lewis was adamant that at the very least, the U.S. should come to an agreement for rules of engagement in the final frontier and soon.
     “The real question is, who lands [on Mars] first,” Lewis said. “Do you want a picture of an astronaut holding an American flag or a Chinese flag? The Chinese are hostile but also pragmatic; they can be engaged … but we need rules of engagement for space. The Chinese will test us and right now, if we don’t push back, cooperation may not be in our interest. It’s a complicated relationship.”

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