Last December, I wrote a column underscoring the ever-increasing intensity of the space race with China.
You don’t need to be a defense analyst to know that the People’s Republic is looking to challenge America’s military preeminence. By greatly expanding upon its artificial intelligence, satellite, and hypersonic capabilities, the country’s missile arsenal threat is real and cannot be taken lightly.
The threat China poses in space is no different. As reported by the Inquisitr in 2016, “China is preparing for space warfare by creating a ‘Space Force’ that will dominate control of low earth orbit. The Space Force will include nuclear missiles, electronic forces, and cyber threat units that are headed by the People’s Liberation Army of China.”
Hence the brilliance of President Trump’s peace through strength defense strategy. Seeming to understand that much of the recent tension between the two countries has been as a result of previous diplomatic failures, the president has opened the most open, cordial line of communication with Xi Jinping in years.
While making a concerted effort for peace is important, the president also recognizes that it is ill-advised not to bolster the U.S.’s capabilities at the same time. That’s why, with a number of policy directives, he created an ambitious path forward for both NASA and the military, all while creating a Space Force of our own — to ensure that America is prepared to defend against the worst if necessary.
But the president can’t do this alone. He is relying on a team of advisors, administrators, and government officials to analyze the specifics and get the job done. And the unfortunate truth is that, thanks to the lobbying and advocacy efforts of some interest groups and Obama holdovers that are misleading the president’s well-intentioned team, his comprehensive defense strategy has recently come at risk of unraveling.
Perhaps no point demonstrated this better than comments from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a March 13 Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, where he seemed to sour on using NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) to get to Mars for the highly-anticipated EM-1 mission around the moon.
To understand how significant of a mistake this could be, one only needs to look at past news headlines, which range from “Why China Wants A Super Rocket Like NASA’s Space Launch System,” to “China aims to launch a rocket larger than NASA’s SLS in 2028,” to “China aims to outstrip NASA with super-powerful rocket.”
China may be 40 years ahead of us on its journey to operationalize space, as U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast stated in 2017, but the U.S. has clearly done something right by directing NASA to build this rocket. When completed it will be the most powerful rocket in U.S. history and the first one ever built with the explicit purpose of sending humans beyond low earth orbit — an effective counter weight to China’s plans. Now, however, some are clamoring that the U.S. begin to abandon this rocket setting back American efforts to catch up to its peers.
Much of this is the result of Paul Martin, an Obama holdover in NASA’s Inspector General office who seems to be showing a bias in favor of SpaceX as exhibited in a recent report that makes misleading claims about the SLS for its delays in getting off the ground and its costs exceeding previous expectations.
While it’s true that the SLS timeline and pricing have not been fully on schedule, that is sometimes a consequence of creating something as unprecedented as SLS. Martin knows that, but he seems intent on taking down SLS anyways. On the other hand, despite the fact that SpaceX — a company that has focused mainly on achieving already-existing capabilities in the U.S. aerospace sector, not creating new ones like the SLS — has by many accounts been the most unreliable contractor of the past decade, Martin hasn’t seemed to say much about their shortfalls.
That is why it was troubling to see Bridenstine, who is usually a rational voice on this subject, say at recent committee hearings that NASA may move away from using SLS for the Moon mission, especially when no other contractors offer the capabilities to complete the mission on their own. Bridenstine admitted this himself when he said, “The challenge is we don’t have a rocket right now that can launch Orion and the European Service Nodule around the moon. That rocket doesn’t exist. That’s what the SLS is all about.”
Instead of using a rocket being built for this explicit purpose, Administrator Bridenstine has said that NASA may conduct a workaround. In his own words:
“We can use two heavy-lift rockets to put the Orion crew capsule and the European Service Module in orbit around the earth, launch a second heavy-lift rocket to put an upper stage in orbit around the earth, and then dock those two together to throw around the moon the Orion crew capsule with the European Service Module.”
If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Rather than use the rocket built for this purpose, NASA would consider using a handful of launch vehicles and a far more complicated process that will only add to mission risk. In what world (no pun intended) would that make sense?
To further complicate matters, Bridenstine said that no existing options exist to dock the Orion crew capsule and that they would have to figure out how to do so between now and June 2020.
Given the fact that it is already March 2019 and considering the inconsistent track records of companies like SpaceX, it is hard to believe that this workaround would represent a quicker way of getting to the Moon instead of allowing NASA to finish the rocket they have been working on for years that will do it all in one fell swoop.
Thankfully, it seems as if Bridenstine may be asking himself these questions and that he is reconsidering his remarks at the hearing.
A March 26 press release stated that, after discussing the idea at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Bridenstine found, “while some of these alternative [launch] vehicles could work, none was capable of achieving our goals to orbit around the Moon for Exploration Mission-1 within our timeline and on budget.” Put more succinctly: “the results of this two-week study reaffirmed our commitment to the SLS.”
For the sake of the Trump administration’s success at keeping America successful in its space race against China, here's hoping that Bridenstine and the rest of NASA holds to that commitment.
China knows that SLS will make an impact in the ongoing race for space dominance. Jeopardizing our national security by putting it on the backburner in favor of a convoluted alternative would be incredibly dangerous and short-sighted.
Travis Korson is a veteran of politics with years of experience in campaigns, communications, and public policy. He previously served in the Bush White House and has also spent time at various conservative organizations and government institutions including the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and the Faith and Freedom Coalition. He is a graduate of the George Washington University where he studied International Affairs with a focus on International Economics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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