WASHINGTON - Some congressmen believe the United States and China are in an unacknowledged space race that this country could lose if it doesn't spend more money on the civilian space program.
The communist nation's military runs its manned space program, employs an estimated 200,000 workers and has set a goal of putting an astronaut on the moon by 2017.
By contrast, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a civilian government program with a limited budget that directly employs fewer than 20,000 civil servants and has lost the commanding lead it once held over the rest of the world in human space exploration.
"We have a space race going on right now and the American people are totally unaware of all this," said Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican whose district includes Johnson Space Center near Houston.
The theme, which is not new, emerged again Thursday at a Capitol Hill hearing where lawmakers were quizzing NASA Administrator Mike Griffin about the Bush administration's budget request for the space program.
This time, though, lawmakers sounded as if they might be willing to do more than just talk about the issue.
Griffin was asked to produce in 30 days an unclassified report to Congress containing an assessment of the Chinese space program and its goals.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with NASA oversight, said he would hold a hearing on the subject to coincide with the report's release.
Griffin acknowledged that China's new Shenzou spaceships are capable of supporting a crew on a round-trip mission to the moon.
But their Long March rockets are not powerful enough to get them there, he said.
The United States has neither a crew vehicle nor a rocket capable of making a moon run.
The shuttle is designed for low Earth orbit only.
NASA has begun work on a lunar Crew Exploration Vehicle, but it won't be operational until 2013 or 2014 because of budget constraints, Griffin said.
Its new heavy-lift rocket won't be ready until even later, he said.
NASA's timeline predicts the new rocket and crew vehicle will be ready for a mission to the moon in 2018, a year later than the Chinese target.
The U.S. space agency is known for missing planned deadlines for major projects.
"We need to do more," Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Indialantic, said.
Griffin said NASA's new lunar vehicles and rockets could be delivered sooner if more money is made available, but he added that he's not advocating such a change.
DeLay indicated he's willing to push for more money because the stakes are so high.
"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."
The China space-race discussion was touched off by Rep. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who in February participated in the first U.S. government delegation visit to China's remote space launch facility.
"The American people have no idea how massive the China space program is," Kirk said.
The first-of-its-kind, behind-the-scenes tour revealed a modern high-tech facility that would be the envy of NASA employees, some of whom still work out of buildings more than 40 years old, Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, told FLORIDA TODAY in February after participating in the China tour.
Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2006 FLORIDA TODAY. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the written consent of FLORIDA TODAY.
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