President Barack Obama’s anti-space exploration policies have created a vacuum that’s being filled by China, bemoaned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during a congressional hearing Tuesday.
China is catching up to the space programs of NASA and the U.S. military, according to expert witnesses at the hearing, causing Republicans and Democrats to blame Obama for delays and funding cuts.
“All of [NASA’s] success came to a screeching halt when President Obama was sworn in,” Texas Republican Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space, said during the hearing. “His fiscal year 2010 budget request slashed well over a billion dollars from the exploration project and budget…China has capitalized on this administration’s weakness.”
Some Democrats agreed with them.
“I think there’s a lot of blame that can be passed along Pennsylvania avenue from one end to the next,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards, the subcommittee’s ranking member, said during the hearing. “For the uncertainty, for the confusing priorities, across Republican and Democratic presidents and members of Congress. In my very short 8 years on this subcommittee and committee, I’ve witness that conflict in priorities.”
In recent months, China launched its second space station, built the world’s largest radio telescope, and deployed the world’s first hack-proof satellite in August. All of this has lawmakers concerned NASA is falling behind.
“China stands to fill another void left by this administrator’s disinterest in maintaining leadership in exploration,” Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith said during the hearing.
“By abandoning plans to return to the Moon, the administration invited the rise of China as a leader in space,” Smith said. “Our allies stand ready to partner in an ambitious exploration program, unfortunately the current administration won’t allow NASA to propose one.”
Obama has repeatedly tried to slash space exploration funding and redirect it to Earth science programs, which include climate modeling initiatives designed to measure global warming. Obama increased NASA’s budget for environmental programs by 63 percent at the expense of its exploration budget.
NASA astronauts now rely on the Russians to reach space, and NASA has been forced by the Obama administration to delay the Mars mission until 2030.
“President Obama canceled Constellation in his next budget request, redirected even more money to Earth Science to support his radical political agenda, and then guaranteed dependence on Russia for access to space for an extended period of time which is still ongoing,” Babin continued.
Obama’s NASA budget shifts money from NASA’s exploration and robotics programs to its environmental sciences and “outreach” programs. Obama’s budget manages to cut every part of NASA that actually works, including planetary science programs, technological development programs, and many important future Mars missions — without saving any money.
NASA’s budget includes more than $2 billion for the agency’s Earth Science Mission Directorate, which covers global warming science. The money will be specifically allocated to improve climate modeling, weather prediction and natural hazard mitigation. In comparison, NASA’s other functions, such as astrophysics and space technology, are only getting a mere $781.5 and $826.7 million, respectively, in the budget proposal.
“China stands to fill another void left by this administrator’s disinterest in maintaining leadership in exploration,” Smith said during the hearing. “By abandoning plans to return to the Moon, the administration invited the rise of China as a leader in space.”
China aims to land a solar-powered rover on Mars in 2020, and to become the first country to send an object to the dark side of the moon that same year. The country’s annual space budget is less than the U.S.’s, but most of NASA’s cash is spent on environmental issues and other fields not directly related to space exploration.
Meanwhile, Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects and also has a military-backed space program. Expert witnesses at the congressional hearing repeatedly noted that the divide between China’s military and civilian space programs isn’t a strict one and that most space activities were ultimately controlled by the Chinese military.
“After years of investment and strategy, China is well on its way to becoming a space superpower—and maybe even a dominant one,” reported Popular Science earlier this month. “Now, satellites guide Chinese aircraft, missiles, and drones, while watching over crop yields and foreign military bases. The growing number of missions involving Chinese rockets and taikonauts [astronauts] are a source of immense national pride.”
China has already staged a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon, increased its cooperation in space with Europe, and launched a demo space station all since its first manned space launch in 2003.
China has been heavily militarizing space as well. The communist country successfully targeted and destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit in 2007, and has likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.
A report published in August by the U.S. National Academies found that the Department of Defense “urgently needs” new policies to defend U.S. satellites, since both Russia and China are developing space weapons capable of knocking out U.S. satellites in any future conflict, giving them a potentially catastrophic edge in war.
Chinese plans in space are still technologically inferior to NASA and face serious problems however. The Chinese lunar rover had numerous mechanical problems and was ultimately abandoned. China’s first attempt to send a satellite into Mars orbit in 2011 failed when the rocket carrying it blew up before even reaching Earth’s orbit.
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