Foreign competition - in space

The plan for human space exploration has a familiar ring: Launch probes to scope out the moon, build rockets powerful enough to get people and supplies there, then send the first lunar expedition - all before 2020.

These goals form the centerpiece of the US manned spaceflight program. They now form the centerpiece of China's, too.

As lawmakers in Washington fret over how to pay for key elements of President Bush's blueprint for space exploration, which aims to send astronauts back to the moon in 2018, China is making a bid to place the first bootprints on the moon this century - perhaps in 2017.

On one level, China's goals - plus those of other space-faring countries - are raising concerns among some analysts that the US space program may be on the verge of losing its preeminence in space exploration. The foreign competition also echoes a broader worry: the possibility that the global center of gravity in science and technology may start to shift toward Asia if the US fails to adequately support its research enterprise.

NASA became the focus of those concerns as its administrator, Michael Griffin, told Congress last week that the agency needed to make difficult cuts in basic research and technology development. Some lawmakers worried about the agency's ability to attract the best and brightest and help draw more young people to science and technology.

Many experts worry about what might happen if those young people do something else. While the US remains the world's R&D giant, "the Chinese are definitely moving faster than we are" in key areas, says James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He cites information technology, aerospace, and biotechnology as examples.

"The rates of change in these areas favor China," he continues. "Whether it's enough to catch up remains to be seen."

With a gross domestic output of $7.3 trillion, second only to the United States in economic terms, China is projected to move into second place in the global R&D sweepstakes this year, overtaking Japan, according to projections from Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and R&D magazine. On a continental scale, Asia is projected to overtake the Americas this year in total R&D spending and pull well ahead next year.

To a large degree, these changes are normal adjustments as economies devastated by World War II recovered and the communist economies gave way to more market-based approaches, analysts say.

Such a move has its benefits, says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. "It opens the door for expanded collaborations that didn't exist a decade ago."

Yet the question of who leads remains critical, many say.

"Certainly, a lot of the concern stems from self-interest," Mr. Lewis says. "But it also has to do with who sets the rules of international behavior. People from other countries train in the US and take that exposure to innovation and democratic values back with them. I don't know who we'd feel comfortable handing that off to."

Last month in a major report from The National Academies, panel members expressed concern over what they saw as the erosion of America's R&D effort at a time when other countries are ramping up their R&D efforts. The panel recommended a set of remedies - from improving elementary and secondary science education to offering tax incentives for US innovation and raising federal spending for R&D. Estimated cost: $9 billion to $20 billion a year.

Yet the competition for federal dollars is fierce, given the war in Iraq, the ballooning federal deficit, and the rising cost of federal entitlement programs. "We can see the path we would like to take," Mr. Koizumi says. "But getting there is not easy."

The challenges NASA faces, he continues, are a case in point. Many of the agency's troubles are self-inflicted, he acknowledges. Still, he adds, the agency can be viewed as a microcosm for the forces buffeting the US R&D enterprise as a whole.

Budget strictures are forcing the agency to make hard choices. "NASA cannot afford everything on its plate today," Dr. Griffin told lawmakers last week. At issue: How the agency will make up what NASA estimates is a $3 billion to $5 billion shortfall in the space-shuttle program, even as it tries to accelerate development of the shuttle's replacement - the crew exploration vehicle (CEV) and the rockets to launch it.

Before the agency presented its plan for returning humans to the moon earlier this fall, NASA "cast its net very widely on research and technology development," he said. "Now we should be oriented toward projects we're actually doing. This requires canceling things that don't need to be done or don't need to be done right now."

The moves, which include layoffs at the agency, could mean fewer young people would sign on to the space program.

Yet the adjustments are necessary, Griffin argued, if the US is to avoid a period when it has no homegrown means of putting astronauts in space. Failing to accelerate the program beyond the pace President Bush initially envisioned "would take the US out of manned spaceflight for four years, when other nations are rising in ascendancy," Griffin said.

"We're seeing the dawning renaissance of NASA," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) of New York and chairman of the committee. "But a renaissance costs money. And I don't see any Medicis waiting in the wings to underwrite NASA."

Noting NASA's proclivity to over-promise on its projects and timetables, he said, "I don't want to see us go down that road again."

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