COLORADO SPRINGS — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he supports continuing current restrictions on the agency’s ability to work with China in spaceflight as he warns of a “space race” between the countries.

Nelson told members of the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee at an April 19 hearing about NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget that he felt the so-called “Wolf Amendment,” which sharply restricts bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese organizations, should be maintained.

“I think the Wolf Amendment, as it’s written, is adequate,” he said when asked by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) if it should be strengthened. “I think the Wolf Amendment is sufficient for where it is right now.”

The amendment, included in annual appropriations bills since 2011, does allow NASA to cooperate in limited circumstances provided there is a security review and congressional notification. Nelson gave one example of that cooperation in discussions two years ago regarding “deconfliction” of the orbits of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter with NASA spacecraft orbiting the planet.

He showed little desire, though, to expand cooperation, citing a lack of transparency in actions like recent Long March 5B launches that left core stages in orbits that resulted in uncontrolled reentries. “I would hope that China, the Chinese government, would finally come to realize that they’ve got to be more open and transparent about all of their stuff falling back to Earth and that we could cooperate together,” he said.

He also reiterated comments about competition with China in space exploration. “Not the same as Apollo, but we’re in a space race with China,” he said when asked by the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), if there was a space race between the U.S. and China.

“China has, in the last 10 years, established a very successful human space program,” Nelson said, describing development of China’s space station and long-term plans for human missions to the moon. “So, is that a space race? Yes, sir, I believe it is.”

He added, though, that NASA was not returning to the moon simply to beat China there. “But there are other reasons that we go to the moon, because we’re going to Mars,” he said, describing how future human lunar missions will test technologies and operations needed for later missions to Mars.

Yet, later in the hearing, he said NASA and its partners needed to get to the lunar south polar region, thought to harbor deposits of water ice, before China arrived and claimed them. “We need to protect our interests going to a very critical part of the moon’s surface,” he said when asked about past comments along those lines by Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.)

“If you let China get there first,” Nelson warned, “what’s to stop them from saying, ‘We’re here, this is our area, you stay out.’ That’s why I think it’s important for us to get there on an international mission and establish the rules of the road.”

Slowdown warning

There was little criticism, or critical questioning, of Nelson by members of the subcommittee during the hearing. Instead, many members used the hearing to ask how broader political and economic issues could affect NASA.

The hearing took place the same day as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) announced legislation to increase the debt ceiling that would also reduce federal discretionary spending to 2022 levels. Several Democratic members of the committee asked Nelson how that would affect NASA.

“A 22% cut or a continuing resolution that would leave the funding at the ’23 level would cause a slowdown of programs at NASA across the board,” Nelson told Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), ranking member of the subcommittee. The 22% figure was one estimate of the potential cut to non-defense discretionary spending if the reduction to 2022 levels excluded defense programs.

NASA had outlined the potential impacts of such a cut in a letter in March to the top Democrat on the full committee, Rep. Rose DeLauro (D-Conn.) Nelson said in that letter that a 22% cut  “would have devastating and potentially unrecoverable impacts” to NASA programs, delaying or canceling many science and exploration missions.

The House hearing took place one day after a hearing by its Senate counterpart, where members worried about the impact on science programs from cost growth in Mars Sample Return. That topic did not come up in the House hearing until near the end, when Ruppersberger asked about perceived budget cuts and potential delays in the Dragonfly mission to Titan.

“We are still planning on launching Dragonfly in ’27. That has not changed,” Nelson said. “Right now, there is not any plan for a cut in fiscal year ’24.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...