Nelson: “Watch the Chinese”

Nelson: “Watch the Chinese”

China’s recent space achievements and future plans pose a competitive threat to U.S. plans according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Calling their space program “very aggressive,” his message is “watch the Chinese” or they may be on the Moon before the United States gets back there.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson/ Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Nelson took the reins of NASA on May 3 after a career in politics, first as a Congressman and then a Senator from Florida. In his first appearance before Congress in his new position last week, he warned members of a House Appropriations subcommittee that China is an “aggressive competitor” and the United States should “get off our duff” and put Americans back on the Moon before they get there.

China already has landed two rovers on the moon (Chang’e-3/Yutu and Chang’e-4/Yutu-2) and brought back 1.7 kilograms of lunar soil and rock last December on Chang’e-5.  It has plans for more robotic lunar missions and, someday, humans.

But it is China’s successful landing of a robotic rover, Zhurong, on Mars that is generating concern right now. It is only the second country after the United States to do so.

No other country can compare to U.S. achievements on Mars.  Zhurong’s landing comes 45 years after the first two U.S. spacecraft landed there, Viking 1 and 2 in 1976. NASA’s newly-arrived Perseverance rover is the ninth successful U.S. Mars lander and fifth rover, and it brought along the first helicopter, Ingenuity, to fly on another planet.

Still, landing on Mars is no easy feat as evidenced by Soviet and European attempts that were partial or complete failures. One U.S. attempt also failed, so China does deserve credit for doing it on the first try.

China released the first photos from Zhurong hours before Nelson testified to the House subcommittee last week. Although he initially tweeted congratulations to China, by the time of the hearing he was using Zhurong as an example of China’s “aggressive” behavior.

He sounded the same theme today at a joint meeting of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. He went even further, asserting that China’s lack of transparency on the origin of the COVID-19 virus adds to his concerns.

Well, you know about the [Zhurong] rover that just landed on Mars. And so you see that they have a considerable degree of sophistication, that they are the third to have landed, but the second to have landed successfully on Mars. And that is no easy feat. We’ve been doing it for quite a while and each one is built on another and now we’ve got this rover up there that’s the size of a Volkswagen and a little helicopter that’s hopping around and surveying the terrain, living far beyond its design life.

But the Chinese. That’s nothing to sneeze at and ignore. And when you combine that with the fact that they have an aggressive plan on the moon, and also have an aggressive plan with humans. And when you combine that with, for example, if there’s truth to the more recent press reports as of last evening from the intelligence community, that there is some evidence, not corroborated yet, that indeed that the virus COVID started in a lab, not an animal market, then, and there is no transparency, apparently, from China, and I think we have to be concerned. — Bill Nelson

Nelson apparently was referring to a report in the Wall Street Journal about the origins of COVID-19, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed at the daily press conference yesterday that not enough information is available yet to draw a conclusion.  The White House is calling for an independent investigation into that very question.

In any case, China’s space activities, which include launching an earth-orbiting space station, seem to be helping NASA make the case for its own future plans including the Artemis program to put astronauts back on the Moon.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

Nelson and Kathy Lueders, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program who also spoke to the meeting today, continue to express optimism that the first Artemis launch will take place before the end of the year.

Artemis-I is a test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an uncrewed Orion capsule. The SLS core stage arrived at Kennedy Space Center a month ago and is now being “stacked” with the vehicle’s two Solid Rocket Boosters, upper stage, and other hardware. Lueders said the process is actually a few days ahead of schedule. Orion will be added to the stack in mid-July. She declined to give a date for the launch. They are “pushing towards, I would say, the end of November” but “I’ll take a Christmas present.”

I won’t say the date, don’t ask me. We’re working through it one day at a time, but we’re shooting for — right now my “no earlier than” date is in November, but like I said it’s knock on wood. I’ve done too many of these launches and I know that there may be a few surprises out there. — Kathy Lueders

The first flight of SLS has been delayed again and again. In 2014, NASA committed to the first launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021.  Although Nelson, Lueders and other NASA officials remain optimistic about November 2021, the years of delays, most recently due to the need to re-do the Green Run test, engenders considerable skepticism.

SLS and Orion are needed to execute Artemis, which at the moment remains on the Trump Administration’s schedule to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024.  President Biden supports Artemis, but has not said what timeline he has in mind. NASA is in the process of reevaluating its overall plan, or architecture, for the program. More information could be available on Friday when Biden’s complete FY2022 budget request is released.

The current architecture calls for the crew to be launched in an Orion capsule on an SLS rocket to a small space station, Gateway, orbiting the Moon.  They will transfer to a Human Landing System (HLS) to get down to and back from the lunar surface, and then re-board Orion for the return trip to Earth.

The initial version of Gateway is composed of a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) provided by Maxar Technologies and a Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) from Northrop Grumman that will be launched together on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Lueders said NASA is “in the process of finalizing” the fixed-price contract with Northrop Grumman “with delivery at the end of 2024” and launch “around that time or early in 2025.”

That is a slip from May 2024 and if NASA sticks to the current architecture where the crew transfers from Orion to HLS through the Gateway, almost certainly means the first Artemis landing will not be in 2024. An alternative approach where the HLS and Orion dock together directly has been discussed, but NASA has not yet announced such a change. The contract for building HLS itself is under protest at the moment, another wrinkle.

Nelson also provided a bit more information about the Earth System Observatory (ESO) announced by the White House yesterday.  NASA will spend $2.5 billion over 10 years and launch five spacecraft. The first, a joint project with India, is already in development and will launch in 2023.

Nelson flew into space on a 1986 space shuttle mission. Pam Melroy, a former NASA astronaut, has been nominated to be his deputy, and another former NASA astronaut, Bob Cabana, was just appointed to the third top position at the agency, Associate Administrator. Nelson assured the two Boards that does not mean human spaceflight will get preferential treatment under their leadership, though. All three also are focused on science, aeronautics and STEM education.

Nelson is known as a strong supporter of human spaceflight and while in the Senate tried to get Congress to pass a new NASA authorization bill that would extend the life of the International Space Station (ISS) until 2030. Current law commits the United States through “at least 2024.”

Russia is a key partner and recent reports suggest it does not want to continue past 2025, however.  Nelson hopes that is not true and will be talking with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, in the “very near future.”

Rogozin, Director General of Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos, is eager to meet with Nelson, tweeting in English instead of his usual Russian that an invitation already was extended.

Rogozin was Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and consequently is under U.S. sanctions, so is not allowed to come here.


User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.