Gerstenmaier: U.S. Leadership in Space is “Ours to Lose” if Direction Changes Too Many Times

Gerstenmaier: U.S. Leadership in Space is “Ours to Lose” if Direction Changes Too Many Times

Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said today that the United States is the “partner of choice” for countries wanting to engage in international space cooperation, but that leadership is “ours to lose” if too many changes in direction drive partners away.

NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier testifying to the House Science, Space, and Technology Space Subcommittee. November 9, 2017. Screengrab.

Gerstenmaier spoke to a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today in the Senate.  The focus of his talk was what NASA will accomplish in human spaceflight this year — from operations of the International Space Station to the first commercial crew test flights to continued development of the Space Launch System and Orion.  He also briefly discussed the International Space Exploration Forum-2 (ISEF2) that was held this weekend in Tokyo where he and other U.S. officials interacted with representatives of 45 nations interested in international space cooperation.

Asked if the United States is competing with China to attract investment from international partners, Gerstenmaier replied that the United States is the “partner of choice” right now based on the success of the International Space Station.  Current and potential partners are “hedging their bets” and talking to China, however, because the United States often changes course.  The United States needs to have “consistency of purpose” or they will be “ready to pivot to the Chinese,” but stressed he does not see that as a “threat,” but a “caution to us that we shouldn’t take for granted our leadership role…. It’s our to lose…”

China’s human spaceflight program is proceeding at a modest pace (it has launched astronauts only six times since 2005, most recently in 2016), but is planning to build its own modular China Space Station (CSS) in the early 2020s.  China often uses 2022 as the date by which all three modules of its planned 60 Metric Ton (MT) space station will be in orbit, although the failure of its Long March 5 rocket last year has delayed that plan.  Long March 5 is needed to lift the three 20 MT modules that will comprise CSS.  Andrew Jones at reported today that the Long March 5 is scheduled to return to flight in the second half of this year and launch of the first CSS module, Tianhe, will slip from 2018 to 2020.  Tianhe will be visited by an automated cargo resupply mission, then a crew, and then the other two science modules  (Wentian and Mengtian) will be launched, Jones reported.

Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing commercial expandable space stations, said last month that China is courting the same customers he is.

Gerstenmaier said today that NASA continues to abide by the law that prohibits NASA from cooperating with China on a bilateral basis, but future space cooperation with China is an issue Congress may want to reconsider.  It is “not an easy question.”

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