US falling behind in battle for ultimate high ground — space

March has been an exciting month in space exploration. The media has been abuzz with stories about future lunar missions to gather soil samples, continued development of lunar probes and record-setting numbers of rocket launches. Unfortunately, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is featured in none of these stories, which is unusual, given that the United States has long been the global leader. Sadly, these stories are all about China’s escalating ambition to eclipse the United States as the global leader in human space flight. 

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China is very public about its desire to compete with the United States and Russia by developing advanced space capabilities. Last December, China released a five-year plan for its space program, which included plans to “launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters” and begin studies on a plan for a human lunar landing. Part of its stated goal is to “build a space infrastructure frame composed of Earth observation satellites, communication and broadcasting satellites, plus navigation and positioning satellites.” China recently announced a plan to launch 100 satellites by the end of 2015. For 2012, China has 30 launches planned, including a manned rendezvous between two orbiting space vehicles this summer. 

China’s lofty ambitions and recent successes are a sharp contrast to our current space program, which has lapsed into a state of uncertainty and malaise. Since the Space Shuttle was retired last summer, the United States has no access the International Space Station (ISS), a critically important investment that we have just begun to fully utilize. Our astronauts must pay $60 million per seat to the Russians for a ride on the Soyuz capsule. While NASA is working with commercial companies to develop private access to the ISS, we are years away from a viable commercial market for low earth orbit transport. Even more troubling, the Obama administration refuses to adequately fund the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which are the future of NASA’s deep-space exploration.

President Obama and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. continue to laud their “vision” for the future of human space exploration, which centers on a vague mission to a “yet to be determined” asteroid in 2025 and possibly a mission to Mars at a later date. However Obama’s federal budget cuts funding for the MPCV by more than $300 million, pushing back its first manned flight to 2021. This funding cut is symptomatic of his lack of commitment to American leadership in space exploration. NASA must be given the resources and funding necessary to develop a rocket capable of exploration beyond earth orbit as soon as possible. Without the SLS rocket, we will be confined to low earth orbit operations while China makes large strides toward the moon and beyond.

America’s ability to compete globally is at risk if we cede global dominance to China. Every move China makes has a primary goal of expanding its military capabilities, and China has already demonstrated its ability to deploy military resources into space. In 2007, its military successfully used a ground-based missile to hit and destroy one of its aging satellites in orbit. This test illustrates China’s ability to target regions of space that are home to U.S. spy satellites and space-based missile-defense systems. Space is the ultimate high ground, which must be protected. Our ability to protect our assets in space is a matter of national security that requires the United States to maintain a robust and constant presence in space, both in low earth orbit and beyond.

For half a century, American human space exploration has been a source of pride and inspiration. The extraordinary challenges of getting to low earth orbit and beyond have also motivated and accelerated the development of technologies and industrial capabilities that have contributed to the technological excellence of America. However, the president’s NASA failures jeopardize our national security by relying solely on commercial partners to achieve our goals. There is an important role for both NASA and commercial space flight, but America cannot afford to continue to widen the gap in accessing space and holding the high ground. This president and the next must demonstrate a commitment to the SLS and MPCV, which will carry American astronauts to deep space and represent the future of human space flight. Otherwise, China will soon control the ultimate high ground.

Olson is a former Navy pilot and a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.