President-elect Barack Obama will probably tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S.'s civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a new space race with China.
Obama's transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency's planned launch vehicle, which isn't slated to fly until 2015, according to people who've discussed the idea with the Obama team.
The potential change comes as Pentagon concerns are rising over 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.
"The Obama administration will have all those issues on the table," said Neal Lane, who served as President Bill Clinton's science adviser and wrote recently that Obama must make early decisions critical to retaining U.S. space dominance. "The foreign affairs and national security implications have to be considered."
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.
A Level of Proficiency
"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, Virginia-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."
Obama has said the Pentagon's space program -- which spent about $22 billion in fiscal year 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- person craft that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station and eventually the moon. Obama has said he would like to narrow that gap, during which the U.S. 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 Obama's transition team leader, Lori Garver, that her colleagues lack the engineering background to evaluate rocket options, agency spokesman Chris Shank said. Garver and other advisers declined to comment.
At the Pentagon, there may be support for Obama's vision. While 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 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, Maryland-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 expert at Washington's National Air and Space Museum
who has conferred with 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 Griffin, who visited the Chinese space program in 2006.
Griffin said in July that he believes China will be able to put people on the moon before the U.S. 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
"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 investments in anti-satellite warfare and in "cyberwarfare," ballistic missiles and other weaponry "could threaten the United States' primary means to project its power and help its allies in the Pacific: bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them," Gates wrote in the current issue of Foreign Affairs
China is designing satellites that, once launched, could catch up with and destroy U.S. spy and communication satellites, said a Nov. 20 report to Congress from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission
. China's State Council Information Office declined to comment on the nation's anti-satellite or manned programs.
To boost cooperation between NASA and the Pentagon, Obama has promised to revive the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which oversaw the entire space arena for four presidents, most actively from 1958 to 1973.
The move would build ties between agencies with different cultures and agendas.
"Whether such cooperation would succeed remains to be seen," said Scott Pace, a former NASA official who heads the Washington-based Space Policy Institute
. "But the questions are exactly the ones the Obama team needs to ask."