But during his visit to Beijing a few days later, President Obama talked about "cooperation" rather than competition. In a joint statement with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the two leaders called for "a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit."
China's aerospace industry firms - which for decades have supplied dangerous missile technologies and equipment to Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, and which have been sanctioned ceaselessly by four successive U.S. presidents for their transgressions - will find the United States in a new suppliant posture.
The atrophying U.S. space program suggests that America will be forced to cooperate with China in space, or else cede the high frontier of space to China altogether.
In October, a White House committee headed by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine, reported that without $3 billion in additional funding, NASA has no plan that "permits human exploration to continue in any meaningful way."
October's launch of the experimental Ares 1-X heavy lift rocket, while flawless, may well mark the end rather than the beginning of America's next-generation Constellation manned-space program. The space shuttle is scheduled for retirement this year and until Constellation gets off the ground, future American astronauts will rely on Russians - or Chinese - to get into orbit - if they want to get there at all. America's multitrillion-dollar deficits over the next 10 years are likely to dissuade the Obama administration from budgeting for Constellation until well after Mr. Obama leaves office, if then.
The Pentagon is clearly alarmed by the prospect. The chief of U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Kevin Chilton, told reporters Nov. 3, "With regard to China's [space] capabilities, I think anyone who's familiar with this business ... would have to be absolutely amazed at the advancement that China has made in such a short period of time, whether that be in their unmanned program or the manned program."
Senior Chinese space officials have told their state media that China could be on the moon by 2022 at the outside. Other authoritative Chinese space engineers see a moon landing as a next step in the Tiangong program that will launch three Chinese space stations into Earth orbit between 2011 and 2015. In 2008, NASA scientists told the Bush White House that, with the technology currently available to the Chinese space program, Chinese cosmonauts could be on the moon by 2017.
NASA sees China's strategy for a manned lunar landing as launch vehicle intensive. While America's notional Constellation moon project centers on a single - and still unbuilt - Ares-V "superheavy" lift booster for a direct ascent to the moon and two "lunar orbit rendezvous" operations, China will likely opt for two complex "Earth orbit rendezvous" maneuvers.
This will require four "Long March V" rockets - in the same class as the Pentagon's Delta IV heavy lift launch vehicles - to put their cosmonauts on the moon. Launched in pairs over a two-week period from China's new Wenchang Space Center on the South China Sea island of Hainan, the four Long March Vs will each loft 26-ton payloads into low Earth orbits. The first mission will orbit the rocket for the translunar journey which will then join a second payload of an empty lunar module (LM) and its lunar-orbit rocket motor. Those first two unmanned payloads will rendezvous in Earth orbit and then fire off for the quarter-million-mile journey to the moon.
Once the unmanned LM is in a stable lunar orbit, the second pair of missions will be launched into Earth's orbit; the first with another translunar rocket motor and the second with a combined payload comprising the lunar orbiting module, a modified service module, an Earth re-entry module and the manned Shenzhou capsule with three Chinese cosmonauts.
NASA's experts understand the capabilities, talents - and intentions - of their Chinese counterparts perhaps better than anyone outside China and Russia. China's Long March V rockets are in development now; Russian space scientists now aid their Chinese counterparts in perfecting the Shenzhou class of manned vehicles - closely modeled on the rugged, tried-and-true Soyuz; China has also purchased Russia's spacesuit designs and the KURS and APAS rendezvous and docking systems.
In contrast, NASA has resigned itself to the realities that America's space shuttles will be decommissioned by 2010 and, while the test-launch of the Ares 1-X heavy lift booster was successful, the follow-on Constellation manned program does not have a budget that will get it off the blueprint tables. Nor is NASA staffed with the scientists needed to support it. The median age of NASA's manned space engineers is now over 55. Over a quarter are past retirement age. Meanwhile, China's average lunar probe engineer is about 33 years old and the Shenzhou manned-space program engineers average about 36.
China's space program also seems to have all the funding and resources it needs, partially due to the fact that seven of China's nine most senior leaders - the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo - are themselves engineers.
China may already be the second-largest manufacturing power on Earth and possesses a highly advanced industrial infrastructure. It now has more than $2.3 trillion in excess foreign exchange holdings - adding another $300 billion just in the past nine months, equal the entire gross product of Argentina. And China's top universities are rolling in research money, possess the latest laboratory equipment, and have their pick of the most brilliant students.
In 2005, China produced 351,537 engineers, with at least a bachelor's degree, nearly double the United States figure of 137,437; and a healthy chunk of China top engineers get their doctoral training at American universities. For example, of the 99 doctorates in engineering awarded by the University of Virginia from August 2007 to August 2008, one third - 33 - went to scholars from Chinese universities.
To be sure, China's imaginative and capable aerospace engineers have devised quite workable spacefaring designs, and their access to Russia's space science has helped accelerate their progress. And what the Chinese can't buy from the Russians, or learn at America's top universities, they can still pilfer from U.S. industry.
In July, Dongfan Chung, a former stress engineer with Boeing, was convicted of economic espionage involving 300,000 pages of sensitive data, including information about the space shuttle and the fueling system for America's biggest booster rocket, the Delta IV. In his ruling, the judge in the case noted that Mr. Chung, a U.S. citizen, had decided "to serve the [People's Republic of China], which he proudly proclaimed as his 'motherland.' " In 2008, Shu Quan-sheng, an American physicist living in Virginia was convicted of transferring to the Chinese People's Liberation Army details of liquid hydrogen tanks for the Delta IV.
This combination of financial wealth, educational excellence, advanced technology and a penchant for plundering intellectual property has enabled China's space program to develop swiftly. In 2003, China's gained entry into the exclusive manned-space club previously restricted to the United States and Russia. By 2008, Chinese astronauts were taking space walks and buzzing tiny "BX-1" nano-satellites around their space capsules, a technology that puts them on the cutting edge of "space situational awareness" that America's military space assets still lack.
Beijing's political and military leaders alike foresee "competition" in space with the United States. They certainly plan to seize the high ground of low-Earth orbit and then will likely move to the even higher ground of moon landings perhaps before this decade is out. Judging from the past behavior of China's state-owned aerospace firms especially in their unseemly eagerness to proliferate ballistic missile technology to rogue states, it is unlikely that Mr. Obama can count on much "cooperation" with China in space - except on China's terms.