When the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA met to review the agency’s 2007 budget request March 30, money talk quickly gave way to alarm at China’s ambitious human spaceflight program.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations science, state, justice and commerce subcommittee, opened the hearing with sober words about the challenge of balancing competing NASA priorities within a constrained budget environment.

“The subcommittee will have tough choices to make as we decide how to allocate the very scarce resources we expect to have at our disposal,” Wolf said.

But rather than devoting the next two and a half hours quizzing NASA Administrator Mike Griffin about the details of the agency’s $16.792 billion budget request, the Republicans on the panel, in particular, spent the majority of their time hashing out the threat China and other space-faring nations pose to U.S. supremacy in space.

The next space race

Before all was said and done, Rep. Tom DeL ay (R-Texas ), the former House majority leader, declared the United States to be engaged in a space race with China.

“We have a space race going on right now. The American people are totally unaware of it,” DeLay said.

Several members expressed alarm at China’s stated intention to land it astronauts on the Moon in 2017, one year earlier than called for under NASA’s plan. “If China beats us there, we will have lost the space program,” Wolf said. “They are basically, fundamentally in competition with us.”

After the hearing, in a teleconference with reporters, Griffin steered clear of any discussion of the space race declared by some of NASA’s strongest congressional supporters.

“I don’t have any comment on that at all,” Griffin said. “I felt like I was invited to be a witness to a congressional debate.”

During the hearing, Griffin patiently answered the questions lawmakers asked him about China’s stated intentions.

Griffin avoided giving members a technical assessment of whether China can actually do the things the country’s leaders have publicly said they would like to do, limiting his comments to information already in the public domain. For example, Griffin noted that China has 200,000 engineers and scientists working on its space program compared to the 75,000 full-time equivalents NASA can afford under its budget.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) touched off the China debate by asking Griffin to confirm widely published reports about China’s human spaceflight ambitions, including a 2017 Moon landing and the construction of a space launch complex on the country’s Hainan Island.

“The American people have no idea how massive the Chinese space program is,” Kirk said.

Kirk called for NASA to take the lead in keeping Congress and the public informed about the space programs of China and other competitor nations, including India and Russia. Kirk said NASA would fare better in the annual budget process if Congress and the public were more broadly aware of the strides other nations are making in space.

“The problem with leaving this up to other parts of the U.S. government is their products are classified; they are read by pretty small audiences in the executive branch and almost no one up here. And therefore their budgetary impact is absolutely zero,” Kirk said. “But an unclassified report, my guess is it will have a pretty profound impact on this budget and people’s enthusiasm.”

Taking a harder look

Wolf asked Griffin to submit a report to the subcommittee within 30 days on the capabilities and intentions of China and other space-faring nations.

Griffin, who noted during the hearing that he has “the appropriate intelligence community clearances” to receive briefings on the space activities of other nations, agreed to produce such a report “from open source data.”

But he also cautioned lawmakers “that in regards to budgetary impacts of such assessments … I am here today to defend the president’s budget request for NASA.”

Wolf’s call for a report prompted DeLay to request that the subcommittee hold a two-part hearing on China’s program. One part of the hearing should be public and include testimony from Griffin and other experts. The other part of the hearing, DeLay said, should be closed so that members can receive U.S. intelligence assessments of China’s intentions and capabilities.

Tying the issue to China, DeLay said he would fight to get NASA an extra $3 billion to $5 billion in the years ahead to help minimize a projected four-year gap between the space shuttle’s 2010 retirement and the fielding of its successor, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV).

“We had a 40-year lead in space and we’re giving it up,” he said. “The U.S. is quibbling over $3 billion to $5 billion. It’s amazing to me.”

Griffin testified during the hearing that NASA has the technical wherewithal to field the CEV by 2011 or 2012, but not the budget.

He said the CEV was “waiting in line for the shuttle and station work to be completed before the expenditures really needed can be applied to the CEV,” adding “if those expenditures were applied earlier, for the same total money we would have the CEV earlier.”

Under NASA’s 2007 budget plan, spending on the CEV, Crew Launch Vehicle and associated systems would jump 75 percent next year to $3 billion, grow at a much more modest pace until the shuttle is retired, then shoot up to $7.7 billion in 2011.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) appeared disinclined to overhaul NASA’s budget request, saying he thought Griffin played the budget hand dealt him as best he could.

“I realize you made some tough choices as you try to move forward with this budget,” Weldon said. “I believe you are doing the right thing in light of the national budget scenario we are wrestling with.”

Asked by Weldon whether China could reach the Moon before NASA fields the CEV, Griffin avoided offering an assessment, saying that Chinese officials have said they intend to mount a mission to the Moon by 2017.

Wolf, however, would not let Griffin off the hook. “I think you ducked Mr. Weldon’s point,” Wolf said. “You do have a sense of whether the Chinese intend to do this. You must. You are the man we go to for this information.”

“If I were asked for my sense of it, China is working vigorously on its human spaceflight program in part because they have seen quite appropriately the international respect which is accorded to nations which can conduct such activities,” Griffin said. “The Chinese have flown two human spaceflight missions in the period of time that the United States has flown one in the last two years. Those activities generated for them an enormous amount of respect in the world. Anyone can see that. It does not need my interpretation. They are devoting a substantial chunk of their technical manpower to do [a space program] something over twice what we are.”

Griffin also said China’s crewed capsule could be used for lunar missions.

“They have announced that they intend to be on the Moon by 2017. People can choose to believe it or not,” he said. “The basic design of the Chinese Shenzhou, following as it does the Russian Soyuz, is capable of returning people safely from the Moon. Our space shuttle is not. Our new CEV will be. But the vehicle the Chinese possess today does have that capability. Those are the plain facts.”

It remains to be seen what bearing, if any, playing the China card would have on the budget battle.

The strategy has its skeptics.

“They think if it’s a race they can get more for the top line, but in the end they won’t,” said a former U.S. government official who follows space policy. “The Chinese launched somebody into space and the American people said ‘you mean they haven’t done that before?’. Now if they go around the Moon, that’s interesting because we haven’t done it in 40 years. But even when somebody does it privately, it’s going to be a one- or two-day story and that’s about it. It’s not going to change Washington politics.”

Budget matters

During the more business-as-usual moments in the hearing, subcommittee members told Griffin they were concerned about the relatively flat budget the administration is seeking for NASA. They lamented the lack of funding for the agency’s aeronautics program and the cancellations and delays occurring in the Science Mission Directorate.

Griffin told lawmakers that much thought and consideration went into the agency’s 2007 request and urged them to refrain from taking money out of NASA’s Exploration Systems account to put more money into aeronautics and science programs.

“If the funds budgeted for Exploration Systems were to be used to provide additional funds for science missions, additional aeronautics research or other congressionally-directed items, I must advise Congress that such redirection of already-budgeted funds will directly impact NASA’s ability to effectively and efficiently transition the work force and capabilities from the space shuttle to the new CEV systems. Funds available to carry out this transition are already lean.”

Wolf, DeLay and others on the subcommittee, including Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, said they would fight to get NASA more money than the White House requested.

While defending NASA’s proposed $5.3 billion-a-year science program as “robust,” “vital” and “healthy,” Griffin said NASA is open to adjusting how the science dollars are spent. He said NASA is holding a workshop in early May to hear from members of its newly constituted advisory committee and other scientists on how they think the agency should allocate its science dollars in light of the changed budget outlook.

Comments: bberger@space.com