Sunday, August 1, 2021

China’s Push For Space Superiority Has Former NASA Astronaut Worried

China has been at loggerheads with several nations over a number of issues, including handling of the pandemic, trade relations, territorial dispute on land and sea, and most recently space superiority. Pamela Melroy, a former NASA astronaut, is U.S. President Biden’s nominee for the post of NASA’s next deputy administrator and she is concerned about China’s ambition for space superiority.

China’s push for space superiority

Recently, the former NASA astronaut faced queries about China’s push for space superiority during an important Senate hearing. Melroy was one of three Biden nominees being considered by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Joining her was Carlos Monje, the nominee for Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, and Richard Spinrad, the nominee for Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.

Melroy made it clear that China’s push for space superiority has her concerned. She told the Senate lawmakers: “It’s not just the landing on Mars, which is very impressive, but also a couple of landings on the moon, and of course the new construction of a low Earth orbit space station.” She added that she supports the Wolf Amendment, which prohibits NASA from engaging in activities with China without Congress’s support.

Pamela Melroy, a former NASA astronaut, is concerned about China
Pamela Melroy recently faced queries about China’s push for space superiority during an important Senate hearing. (Image: NASA)

China’s Mars landing

The Mars landing made headlines worldwide and placed China on a solid footing in terms of deep space exploration. The Zhurong rover landed on the Martian surface in May. Melroy sounded cautious about the space programs of China and their progress. She said: “NASA will continue to follow the law. It’s there to ensure that the U.S. thinks very carefully about any kind of engagement with China. However, we have to operate together in the space domain. So there are times when it’s in the best interest of the United States to talk to China.”

China’s rocket debris

Melroy also pointed out the incidents involving Chinese rocket debris falling back to Earth. A spent stage of China’s Long March 5B plunged uncontrollably to Earth last month. While no casualties occurred, the incident drew global attention. Melroy said that NASA has orbital debris standard mitigation norms in place. No country engaging in space programs should violate these norms, she added.

Melroy also faced queries regarding the future of Russia’s space plans, including those shared with the U.S. It can have serious repercussions on the U.S. if Russia actually quits the International Space Station (ISS) program. Melroy said that both U.S. and Russian crew members would be present and that was decided by the governments of both countries when the program was planned. The ISS will reach the end of its lifespan sometime in the near future, she added, and a new space station has to be built.

An artist’s illustration depicts China’s Zhurong rover on the surface of Mars. (Image: China National Space Administration)

A new space race with China

Current NASA administrator Bill Nelson echoed similar views as Melroy during his first congressional hearing in April. He expressed worries about the activities of the China National Space Administration on the lunar surface. Nelson said during the hearing: “In other words, they’re going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our human landing system going vigorously.”

Unlike the first symbolic race to the Moon with the Soviet Union, the one with China is significantly different. This time, the winning nation intends to stay once they land. The winner will get to stake a claim to the Moon’s untapped minerals and other resources, which will be necessary for establishing a permanent base for scientific research and future missions to Mars. Allowing an adversarial power such as China to gain that position is unquestionably not in the interests of the United States.  

Most members of Congress understand what’s at stake, which is why a Moon landing has become the priority of U.S. space policy. The U.S. plans an ambitious landing date of 2024 to stay ahead of China’s curve. Thus, it would be a tremendous loss to the standing of the United States if NASA effectively permits its careful deliberations and planning to fail because it did not ensure secure and reliable vehicles to realize its objectives.

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Max Lu
Max Lu is an author who specializes in Asian geopolitics.

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