House appropriator discusses space priorities

WASHINGTON — A key House member outlined his priorities for NASA and civil space activities that he says are necessary to compete in a new “space race” with China.

Speaking at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference July 27, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) outlined how he believes NASA, working with other agencies and the private sector, should work together to ensure U.S. preeminence in space as China grows its capabilities.

“The space race of today is not like the one we faced with the Soviets. One can actually argue that the space race today has far more on the line,” he said, citing Chinese lunar and Mars missions and development of a space station as evidence of China’s ambitions in space.

“In this new era where the United States is being challenged across every sector, our American space enterprise cannot afford to lose focus or momentum,” he said. “Therefore, to ensure the United States remains the global space power, we must commit to a set of pillars that are based on principles.”

Those pillars, which he outlined in his speech and in a separate document, call for U.S. space leadership, permanence, harmony, security and support. He also discussed 11 “critical markers” he expected the U.S. to achieve in space by the end of the decade.

While one such marker is maintaining a human presence in low Earth orbit while establishing an “ongoing” one at the moon, most involve policy, infrastructure or other institutional issues. They included expanded cooperation with allies, establishing rules and norms of behavior in space and roles for the National Space Council and the Office of Space Commerce in policy coordination and regulation, respectively.

Another element of his plan was a call for “greater cohesion” between NASA and the Defense Department. “We much ensure that we can easily leverage NASA assets for space security, as well as Department of Defense assets for NASA development,” he said, citing one example of the former potential national security applications of the Space Launch System.

While Aderholt has long been a major supporter of the SLS, he also praised the efforts of companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX that had been seen as rivals or even threats to traditional space companies and programs. “We must recognize the changing landscape of the industry,” he said. “Gone are the days of ‘New Space’ and ‘Old Space’ jockeying for relevance in separate lanes. In this new era, we only have American space.”

Aderholt’s proposal also included a call to “contain Chinese space ambitions,” which raised eyebrows among some observers. “The obvious threat posed by the Chinese regime must be taken very seriously,” he said, but he focused on alleged Chinese espionage and illegal technology transfers from American industry rather that Chinese space activities themselves.

He focused primarily on perceived threats from China but also discussed concerns about Russia, calling for a “serious discussion about the future of U.S.-Russian relations in space.” Russian statements July 26 stating that they would leave the ISS some time after 2024, even as the U.S. and other partners work to extend the station to 2030, “only furthers the narrative that Russia is an erratic partner.”

He noted he included language in the House version of a commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill for fiscal year 2023 that would restrict NASA’s ability to cooperate with Russia on programs other than the ISS. In practice, there is now little, if any, such cooperation taking place, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Aderholt, in his speech or accompanying document, did not provide any specific plans or funding levels to achieve these goals. However, he is in position to make progress on them as the ranking member of the House CJS appropriations subcommittee. With Republicans widely expected to take control of the House after the 2022 elections, he would be in line to chair the subcommittee. This comes as other influential members of Congress on space issues, notably Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, will retire after this year.

“It will be a top priority for me to help marshal the power of the purse in support of these enterprises,” he said, calling on fellow members to “provide all the resources and guidance necessary” to the space agency. “The United States Congress must be an arsenal for support in space.”

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