- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama probably will tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S. civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a space race with China.

Mr. Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which is not slated to fly until 2015, say people who have discussed the idea with the Obama team.

The Pentagon has increasing concerns about China’s space ambitions because of what is perceived as an eventual threat to U.S. defense satellites, the lofty battlefield eyes of the military. China, which destroyed one of its aging satellites in a surprise missile test in 2007, is making strides in its spaceflight program. The military-run effort carried out a first spacewalk in September and aims to land a robotic rover on the moon in 2012, with a human mission several years later.

“If China puts a man on the moon, that in itself isn’t necessarily a threat to the U.S.,” said Dean Cheng, a senior Asia analyst with CNA Corp., an Alexandria-based national-security research firm. “But it would suggest that China had reached a level of proficiency in space comparable to that of the United States.”

Mr. Obama has said the Pentagon’s space program - which spent about $22 billion in fiscal 2008, almost a third more than NASA’s budget - could be tapped to speed the civilian agency toward its goals as the recession pressures federal spending.

NASA faces a five-year gap between the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and the first launch of Orion, the six-passenger craft that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station and eventually the moon. Mr. Obama has said he would like to narrow that gap, during which the United States will pay Russia to ferry astronauts to the station.

The Obama team has asked NASA officials about the costs and savings of scrapping the agency’s new Ares I rocket, which is being developed by Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems Inc.

NASA chief Michael Griffin opposes the idea and told Mr. Obama’s transition team leader, Lori Garver, that her colleagues lack the engineering background to evaluate rocket options, agency spokesman Chris Shank said.

“The NASA review team is just asking questions; no decisions have been made,” said Nick Shapiro, a transition spokesman for Mr. Obama. The team will pass its findings to presidential appointees, he said.

Mr. Obama may find support for his vision at the Pentagon. Although NASA hasn’t recently approached the Pentagon about using its Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, building them for manned missions could allow for cost sharing, said Steven Huybrechts, the director of space programs and policy in the office of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is staying on into the new administration.

The Delta IV and Atlas V are built by United Launch Alliance - a joint venture of Boeing and Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. - and typically are used to carry satellites.

“No one really has a firm idea what NASA’s cost savings might be, but the military’s launch vehicles are basically developed,” said John Logsdon, a policy specialist at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum who has conferred with Mr. Obama’s transition advisers. “You don’t have to build them from scratch.”

Meanwhile, Chinese state-owned companies already are assembling heavy-lift rockets that could reach the moon, with a first launch scheduled for 2013. All that would be left to build for a manned mission is an Apollo-style lunar lander, said Mr. Griffin, who visited the Chinese space program in 2006.

Mr. Griffin said in July that he thinks China will be able to put people on the moon before the United States goes back in 2020. The last Apollo mission left the lunar surface in 1972.

“The moon landing is an extremely challenging and sophisticated task, and it is also a strategically important technological field,” Wang Zhaoyao, a spokesman for China’s space program, said in September, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

China plans to dock two spacecraft in orbit in 2010, a skill required for a lunar mission.

“An automated rendezvous does all sorts of things for your missile accuracy and anti-satellite programs,” said John Sheldon, a visiting professor of advanced air and space studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. “The manned effort is about prestige, but it’s also a good way of testing technologies that have defense applications.”

China’s State Council Information Office declined to comment on the nation’s anti-satellite or manned programs.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide