NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sounded a warning Jan. 22

that the United States risks losing its leadership position in the world if it cedes its dwindling advantage in space exploration to other nations.

“I consider it to be impossible that other nations will be leading in space and the U.S. still regarded as having primacy in the world,” Griffin said following his prepared remarks at the Space Transportation Association breakfast in Washington.

“If other nations are leading in space, then the United States will be like Spain or Holland: once great but no

longer important in the affairs of human

kind. I think that ought to matter to us. Not that Spain’s not a great country. But the future I envision for our grandchildren, and great, great grandchildren is to be leaders in the world.”

Griffin predicted that China, which joined the United States and Russia

in 2003 as only the third nation to possess its own means of putting people into space, will beat the United States back to the Moon, noting that the powerful Long

March 5 rocket China has in development for a 2013 debut could be used in pairs to launch an Apollo-style human lunar mission.

NASA’s plans call for returning to the Moon by 2020, but the U.S. space agency’s Ares 1 rocket is expected still to be in development in 2013 and the larger Ares 5 rocket essential to a Moon-shot is still in the

early planning stage.

“I will be surprised if the United States is back on the Moon before China is on the Moon because

if I were the ‘Chinese Mike Griffin’ having the building blocks that [they] have – the Long March 5 and the Shenzhou [crewed capsule] – I know how I would use those building blocks to get to the Moon,” Griffin said. “It wouldn’t be with a Saturn 5-style approach. But with four launches of a Long March in two pairs separated by weeks or months in time – and the Chinese have already demonstrated the dual launch capability – I can get an Apollo-class lander onto the Moon … and a Shenzhou to bring them home with two Long March launches of two each. I can’t be the only person to have figured out how to do that.”

Griffin said Russia, too, has nearly all the capabilities in hand that it would need to mount a Moon mission.

“Russia today if they choose to do it has those building blocks,” he said. “All they need to develop is the lander.”

Noting that Russia “has held onto its human spaceflight program against odds that would have made us quit,” Griffin also predicted that the years ahead could see a resurgent Russian space program well prepared to mount human expeditions beyond Earth orbit.

“When they have had a little more time to consolidate their gains from all the energy money coming in … and to figure out who they are and what their place is going to be in the world, I will be surprised if they don’t venture out beyond Earth orbit, ” he said. “And they can pretty much do it within a half a dozen years of when they [start to] try.”

Griffin mentioned India as another emerging space power primed to take on bigger and more visible roles in space exploration.

“India is not going to allow on the Asian continent a Chinese capability that they don’t have,” he said.

And while Europe so far has chosen to align itself with the United States for its human spaceflight capability, Griffin said Europe, too, has the building blocks it needs to go it alone as well. “They could decide to go beyond low Earth orbit by themselves tomorrow,” he said.

“Other nations, other societies, want to do the things that we have so far crafted a leadership role in doing,” Griffin said.

If the United States is not going to lead, he said, some other nation will.

Griffin devoted his prepared remarks to defending the choices NASA has made

since the White House and the U.S. Congress directed the agency to finish the international space station, retire the space shuttle and build new spacecraft capable of returning humans to the Moon by 2020.

Griffin reminded the

audience that NASA took a careful look at using the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets developed under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program as the foundation for NASA’s new human space transportation system before deciding that making extensive use of space shuttle hardware, infrastructure and personne

l was a better approach from

technical, political and budgetary perspectives.

Griffin said

NASA determined that developing an EELV-based system would cost almost 25 percent more than the shuttle-derived approach NASA decided to take. Griffin said he could not

publicly share the details of the cost development and life cycle cost analysis since “much of it involves proprietary data” but said the complete analysis had been shared with the Defense Department, various White House offices, the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. Government Accountability Office

and interested U.S. lawmakers.