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Griffin Laments Looming Loss Of U.S. Space Leadership

By | April 9, 2007

      The United States has lost its position as the supreme nation in space penetration and exploration, and is about to lose even the basic capability to venture into space, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

      This is because the United States is poised to end flights of its space shuttles fleet in 2010, and the next American vehicle for space travel won’t be fully ready for another half decade, and it will be longer before the U.S. flights to the moon.

      Meanwhile, other nations will be flying into space, as the United States space program — which went to the moon as the world watched in awe — will be grounded, lacking a vehicle even to reach low Earth orbit, he noted.

      This loss of even the most basic space capability means that the United States “sacrifices a level of technical and strategic leadership that we spent many billions of dollars back in the 1960s developing,” Griffin said. “We created it. [But] we are no longer, clearly, supreme, and in a few years we won’t be there [in space] at all. As an American citizen, that bothers me greatly.”

      China has the capability to go to the moon, being now where the U.S. space program was after a couple of Gemini program flights, he said yesterday on C-Span. But that may be misleading, because China, India and other nations possibly mounting moon missions won’t have to replicate much of the development and experimentation that the United States performed in its pioneering work leading to the Apollo lunar expeditions program.

      “Certainly, anyone coming along today would not need to replicate those flights,” he said.

      For NASA, the reality is that the United States will lack a vehicle to go into space from the shuttle fleet retirement in 2010 until 2015 as things now stand, or in June 2013 if funding is provided to accelerate development of the next-generation Orion-Ares space system. NASA last year awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] the contract to build Orion, the crew exploration vehicle, and NASA this year will award the contract for the Ares rocket to lift Orion into orbit.

      The present vision of space exploration sees American astronauts back on the moon in 2019 — “That’s what fits in the budget,” Griffin said — and off to Mars in the following decade.

      Clearly, improving the U.S. position in space can’t occur without more money in the NASA budget. But Griffin made clear that he isn’t complaining about the funds provided thus far, noting that NASA has received larger percentage budget increases than other domestic agencies.

      He especially praised Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs a key Senate Appropriations Committee subcommittee that oversees NASA funding.

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