China's push for 'space superiority' worries nominee for NASA deputy administrator

Former astronaut Pam Melroy, President Biden’s nominee to be the next deputy administrator of NASA, appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Thursday, May 20, 2021, at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington.
Former astronaut Pam Melroy, President Biden’s nominee to be the next deputy administrator of NASA, appears before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Thursday, May 20, 2021, at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

It appears that China will be one of the first challenges for NASA's new leaders.

Former astronaut Pam Melroy received questions about China's space activities during a Senate hearing Thursday (May 20) to consider her nomination as NASA deputy administrator. The livestreamed hearing took place less than a day after her potential future boss, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, pledged action on China during his first congressional hearing as agency head.

Melroy was one of three Biden nominees being considered by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Joining her was Carlos Monje, the nominee for Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, and Richard Spinrad, the nominee for Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.

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"It's not just the landing on Mars, which is very impressive, but also a couple of landings on the moon, and of course the new construction starting of a low Earth orbit space station," Melroy told lawmakers of China.

That Mars landing, of the 530-lb. (240 kilograms) Zhurong rover, occurred on May 14. It put China in select company; previously, only the United States had managed to land and operate a spacecraft on the Martian surface for an appreciable length of time. 

Melroy added that she remains in support of the current law forbidding NASA from most activities with China without express support from Congress, colloquially referred to as the Wolf Amendment. 

"China has made their goals very clear — to take away space superiority from the United States," she said. "So, we are right to be concerned, when you add the other concerns of intellectual property theft and aggressive behavior in space.

"NASA will continue to follow the law," she continued. "It's there to ensure that the U.S. thinks very carefully about any kind of engagement with China. However, we have to operate together in the space domain. So there are times when it's in the best interest of the United States to talk to China."

Melroy also spoke out about a recent incident in which the core stage of a Chinese Long March 5B rocket  plunged uncontrollably to Earth on May 8, the second such situation in a year. Both falls of the Long March 5B core stage resulted in no reported casualties, although the first fall in 2020 apparently caused property damage in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. 

"NASA developed orbital debris standard mitigation practices, which have been proliferated throughout the world, in law and policy [and how] good technical norms and safety norms should proliferate. We also need to call China out — as Administrator Nelson did — when they violate those norms," Melroy said.

On Wednesday (May 19) during his first congressional hearing as NASA administrator, Nelson expressed concern about the China National Space Administration's activities on the moon. The country plans to send three large landers to the moon's south pole in the coming years, while NASA plans only a small rover for the same region in the next two years. The moon's south pole harbors lots of water ice that could be used to make rocket fuel and oxygen for future astronaut missions, exploration advocates say. 

Reports also suggest that China may launch astronauts on a flyby mission to the moon and land people there sometime in the 2020s. NASA's timeline for putting boots on the moon was 2024 under the Trump administration, while the Biden administration has not yet committed to a deadline. "In other words," Nelson said Wednesday, "they're going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our human landing system going vigorously."

On Monday (May 17), the Senate voted 86-11 in favor of the Endless Frontier Act, part of a larger bill that is expected to address China's economic and geopolitical work, according to Politico. More measures are expected to be added shortly, such as addressing manufacturing, diplomacy, national security and technology research and development — all areas that touch on NASA activities.

Melroy also received a question about Russia's plans concerning the International Space Station (ISS), whose current agreement with partners expires in 2024, although the international consensus seems to be leaning toward an extension until 2028 or perhaps later. Russia and NASA had some geopolitical disputes in 2013 during a Russian invasion of Crimea that resulted in financial penalties against senior Russian political leaders. That said, human spaceflight cooperation between the nations remained uninterrupted.

"It would be a serious outcome for the optimum safe operations of the International Space Station," Melroy said in response to a question asking what would happen if Russia withdrew from the ISS program. "It was designed from the beginning with the assumption that there would be Russian and American crewmembers present. The current cooperation, in fact, on the space station with Russia is a shining light in the relationship, and also in the indications of 'soft power' that NASA can provide."

NASA is in early discussions about a space station successor, Melroy added, which was likely a gentle allusion to the agency encouraging industry to consider a new privately run space station. "At some point it will wear out," Melroy said of the ISS. "I don't think it's unreasonable that Russia is talking about it also. If I am confirmed [as deputy administrator], I look forward to actually having a conversation with Roscosmos [Russia's space agency] and find out what they really think, because we need to be harmonizing timing."

Like Nelson before her, Melroy pledged to focus on diversity if confirmed. "I would support Administrator Nelson in fostering a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion at NASA and support the role of NASA in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education, growing our great nation's next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers," she said.

Former shuttle astronaut Mark Kelly — a U.S. senator from Arizona who won election in November 2020 — spoke in support of Melroy's nomination, calling his former boss an "incredible, competent and hard-working leader." Melroy's time as a space shuttle commander, Kelly added, shows that "she understands the challenge that this generation of astronauts will face as they deploy new technology to get to the moon and Mars."

Melroy was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1994 and subsequently flew three space shuttle missions during the construction of the International Space Station, according to her NASA biography. She was mission commander during her last flight in 2007, making her only one of two women to command the space shuttle, along with Eileen Collins.

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Melroy also acted as Capsule Communicator (the person in mission control who talks with crewmembers in space); supported numerous space missions; and served on two teams that NASA put together after the loss of space shuttle Columbia in 2003 to investigate the fatal accident, which killed seven astronauts.

"Columbia is a great example," Melroy said in response to a question concerning redundancy and resiliency for key elements of Artemis, NASA's program of crewed lunar exploration. A key human landing system contract is now under protest by two private teams after a sole-source award to SpaceX in April, prompting Nelson to say Wednesday that he will support competition if possible once the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes a decision on the dispute.

Melroy mentioned that, after the Columbia accident, redundancy in transportation systems quickly became an issue as the shuttle launch program had to be shut down for several years to address the safety concerns. The shuttle was tasked with carrying large items to build the then-growing ISS, and there was no capability to replace the American vehicle's hauling capacity, forcing construction delays.

With regard to Artemis, Melroy added, "I see it as a systems engineering problem — all of the pieces have to work together, and there have to be multiple backups. To me, that's the meaning of resiliency. It allows you to have hiccups, which you will occasionally have with new technologies and unforeseen circumstances. Going forward, especially in operations, it allows you to protect the mission and protect the safety of those involved."

Melroy served in the Air Force, taking part in Operation Desert Storm during the 1990-91 Gulf War, and is now retired as a colonel. She retired from NASA in 2009 to work first for the Federal Aviation Administration and then the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. After his election in November, Biden selected her to serve on the NASA review team that helped facilitate his transition with regard to the agency.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: