China’s push for ‘space superiority’ worries nominee for NASA deputy administrator

It seems that China will likely be one of many first challenges for NASA’s new leaders.

Former astronaut Pam Melroy acquired questions on China’s space actions throughout a Senate listening to Thursday (May 20) to think about her nomination as NASA deputy administrator. The livestreamed listening to passed off lower than a day after her potential future boss, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, pledged action on China throughout his first congressional listening to as agency head.

Melroy was one in every of three Biden nominees being thought of by the 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.

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“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 starting of a low Earth orbit space station,” Melroy advised lawmakers of China.

That Mars touchdown, of the 530-lb. (240 kilograms) Zhurong rover, occurred on May 14. It put China in choose firm; beforehand, solely the United States had managed to land and function a spacecraft on the Martian floor for an considerable size of time. 

Melroy added that she stays in assist of the present legislation forbidding NASA from most actions with China with out categorical assist from Congress, colloquially known as the Wolf Amendment. 

“China has made their goals very clear — to take away space superiority from the United States,” she mentioned. “So, we are right to be concerned, when you add the other concerns of intellectual property theft and aggressive behavior in space.

“NASA will proceed to comply with the legislation,” she continued. “It’s there to make sure that the U.S. thinks very fastidiously about any sort of engagement with China. However, we have now to function collectively within the space area. So there are occasions when it is in one of the best curiosity of the United States to speak to China.”

Melroy also spoke out about a recent incident in which the core stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket  plunged uncontrollably to Earth on May 8, the second such situation in a year. Both falls of the Long March 5B core stage resulted in no reported casualties, although the first fall in 2020 apparently caused property damage in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. 

“NASA developed orbital debris commonplace mitigation practices, which have been proliferated all through the world, in legislation and coverage [and how] good technical norms and security norms ought to proliferate. We additionally must name China out — as Administrator Nelson did — after they violate these norms,” Melroy said.

On Wednesday (May 19) during his first congressional hearing as NASA administrator, Nelson expressed concern about the China National Space Administration’s activities on the moon. The country plans to send three large landers to the moon’s south pole in the coming years, while NASA plans only a small rover for the same region in the next two years. The moon’s south pole harbors lots of water ice that could be used to make rocket fuel and oxygen for future astronaut missions, exploration advocates say. 

Reports also suggest that China may launch astronauts on a flyby mission to the moon and land people there sometime in the 2020s. NASA’s timeline for putting boots on the moon was 2024 under the Trump administration, while the Biden administration has not but dedicated to a deadline. “In different phrases,” Nelson said Wednesday, “they will be touchdown people on the moon. That ought to inform us one thing about our must get off our duff and get our human touchdown system going vigorously.”

On Monday (May 17), the Senate voted 86-11 in favor of the Endless Frontier Act, part of a larger bill that is expected to address China’s economic and geopolitical work, according to Politico. More measures are expected to be added shortly, such as addressing manufacturing, diplomacy, national security and technology research and development — all areas that touch on NASA activities.

Melroy also received a question about Russia’s plans concerning the International Space Station (ISS), whose current agreement with partners expires in 2024, although the international consensus seems to be leaning toward an extension until 2028 or perhaps later. Russia and NASA had some geopolitical disputes in 2013 during a Russian invasion of Crimea that resulted in financial penalties against senior Russian political leaders. That said, human spaceflight cooperation between the nations remained uninterrupted.

“It could be a severe end result for the optimum secure operations of the International Space Station,” Melroy said in response to a question asking what would happen if Russia withdrew from the ISS program. “It was designed from the start with the idea that there could be Russian and American crewmembers current. The present cooperation, in reality, on the space station with Russia is a shining mild within the relationship, and likewise within the indications of ‘smooth energy’ that NASA can present.”

NASA is in early discussions about a space station successor, Melroy added, which was likely a gentle allusion to the agency encouraging industry to contemplate a brand new privately run space station. “At some level it’s going to put on out,” Melroy said of the ISS. “I do not suppose it is unreasonable that Russia is speaking about it additionally. If I’m confirmed [as deputy administrator], I sit up for truly having a dialog with Roscosmos [Russia’s space agency] and discover out what they actually suppose, as a result of we should be harmonizing timing.”

Like Nelson before her, Melroy pledged to focus on diversity if confirmed. “I might assist Administrator Nelson in fostering a tradition of range, fairness and inclusion at NASA and assist the function of NASA in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] training, rising our nice nation’s subsequent era of scientists, engineers and explorers,” she said.

Former shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly — a U.S. senator from Arizona who won election in November 2020 — spoke in support of Melroy’s nomination, calling his former boss an “unbelievable, competent and hard-working chief.” Melroy’s time as a space shuttle commander, Kelly added, shows that “she understands the problem that this era of astronauts will face as they deploy new expertise to get to the moon and Mars.”

Melroy was chosen as an astronaut candidate in 1994 and subsequently flew three space shuttle missions throughout the development of the International Space Station, in line with her NASA biography. She was mission commander throughout her final flight in 2007, making her solely one in every of two ladies to command the space shuttle, together with Eileen Collins.

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Melroy also acted as Capsule Communicator (the person in mission control who talks with crewmembers in space); supported numerous space missions; and served on two teams that NASA put together after the loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003 to investigate the fatal accident, which killed seven astronauts.

“Columbia is a superb instance,” Melroy said in response to a question concerning redundancy and resiliency for key elements of Artemis, NASA’s program of crewed lunar exploration. A key human landing system contract is now under protest by two private teams after a sole-source award to SpaceX in April, prompting Nelson to say Wednesday that he will support competition if possible once the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes a decision on the dispute.

Melroy mentioned that, after the Columbia accident, redundancy in transportation systems quickly became an issue as the shuttle launch program had to be shut down for several years to address the safety concerns. The shuttle was tasked with carrying large items to build the then-growing ISS, and there was no capability to replace the American vehicle’s hauling capacity, forcing construction delays.

With regard to Artemis, Melroy added, “I see it as a programs engineering drawback — the entire items must work collectively, and there must be a number of backups. To me, that is the that means of resiliency. It permits you to have hiccups, which you’ll sometimes have with new applied sciences and unexpected circumstances. Going ahead, particularly in operations, it permits you to defend the mission and defend the protection of these concerned.”

Melroy served in the Air Force, taking part in Operation Desert Storm during the 1990-91 Gulf War, and is now retired as a colonel. She retired from NASA in 2009 to work first for the Federal Aviation Administration and then the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. After his election in November, Biden selected her to serve on the NASA assessment workforce that helped facilitate his transition with regard to the agency.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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