President Obama's decision in 2010 to cut NASA's budget and abandon the Constellation program, established by the Bush administration, which was charged with returning Americans to the moon by 2020 and creating an "extended human presence on the moon," has created a vacuum, which China will attempt to fill.
China has announced an ambitious five-year plan that includes the launch of space laboratories, a manned spaceship to the moon and the creation of its own global satellite navigation system that will almost certainly be used for military purposes.
The announcement comes six months after the United States ended the Space Shuttle program, leaving Russia and China as the only countries now capable of sending humans into space. The U.S. must now use Russian rocketry for visits to the International Space Station. How humbling is this? Having "beaten" the Russians to the moon, we must now ask for permission -- and pay them -- to go where we once boldly went before in American-made rockets.
During the glory days of the U.S. space program, the Soviet Union and the Cold War provided the impetus for America's fledgling efforts in space. NASA's mission was to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's 1961 pledge to put men on the moon by the end of the 1960s. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon's surface on July 20, 1969, America and the world cheered. An estimated half-billion people watched on TV as Armstrong proclaimed, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." It was a triumph not only of American science and ingenuity, but a ratification of our way of life and its superiority to communism.
Just as a nation cannot rebuild a gutted military overnight, neither can America reconstitute a space program that has seen many of its scientists and technicians retire or find jobs in other industries.
For people not old enough to have lived through the space program and its named missions -- Mercury, Gemini and Apollo -- there was a sustained unity in America about the space program that held fast even during the divisive Vietnam War. Astronauts, who had "the right stuff," in the words of Tom Wolfe, were treated like supermen.
Who doubts that China will use trips to the moon to build a permanent colony and will operate that colony, at least in part, to further its military goals? China certainly will have the capability through its own GPS system to jam or make mischief with America's global positioning system network. Does anyone think a nation that hacks into U.S. government computers, stealing secrets, would not use a moon base to advance its interests?
Who thinks China lacks the financial resources to fulfill its five-year plan? The Chinese are flush with money we pay them for goods made there and sold here.
The next president should declare a rebirth of the U.S. space program with clear goals, such as a U.S. moon colony and a trip to Mars. A reduction in unnecessary government spending will help pay for it. Other democratic nations might share the financial burden and receive some benefits. We cannot afford to allow China to become the new leader in space exploration.
Many former U.S. astronauts and NASA employees have criticized the Obama administration's retreat from manned spaceflight. In 2010, Neil Armstrong told the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that the Obama administration's decision to end moon exploration and other projects contributes to a "substantial erosion of the United States' historically highly regarded space industrial base," which has led to "a reduction in the number of students pursuing advanced engineering degrees." He added, "A lead -- however earnestly and expensively won -- once lost is nearly impossible to regain."
Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, expressed similar concerns before the same committee.
There will be a space leader in the 21st century. If that leader is China and not the U.S., we will pay a heavy price that will cost us far more than money.