One week ago, China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of the Moon and, soon after, deployed a small rover named “Yutu” to explore the lunar terrain. As that mission proceeds, China is making plans for a 2017 lunar sample return mission and, at some ill-defined time after that, human missions to the Moon. Should the United States be concerned about China’s lunar ambitions and respond accordingly? A couple of members of Congress believe so.
SpacePolicyOnline.com reported Thursday that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to redirect NASA once again, back to the Moon. As China carries out its lunar exploration program, Wolf’s letter states, “many are asking why the U.S. is not using this opportunity to lead our international parters in an American-led return to the Moon.”
Wolf argues there’s limited enthusiasm for NASA’s plans to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit and send a human mission there in the 2020s, lamenting the “misguided focus” of the administration on such a mission. “It’s time to set aside the proposed asteroid mission and instead focus NASA’s direction on leading a return to the Moon, before our partners commit their resources to another country,” Wolf writes. He asks the president to convene a conference at the White House “early in the new year” to develop a plan for a US-led human return to the Moon in the next ten years. “This is a sincere good faith request which I know would be good for the country. Thank you,” Wolf wrote in a handwritten addendum at the end of the letter.
There is, in fact, a space exploration conference coming to Washington, albeit not the White House, next month, as SpacePolicyOnline.com notes. The International Academy of Astronautics is hosting a space exploration conference in January 9, followed by a heads of space agencies summit on the 10th. However, this event is unlikely to result in any agreement on an exploration program like the one desired by Rep. Wolf.
One industry organization has already backed Wolf’s call for a White House space exploration conference. “The Coalition for Space Exploration encourages the proposal to hold a conference early in the new year to develop a mission-oriented plan for a U.S.-led exploration program to send humans to Mars using the SLS and Orion systems, augmented by other systems and technologies contributed by our international partners,” the organization said in a press release late Friday not yet posted on its website. The Coalition’s statement, though, fell short of explicitly endorsing Wolf’s call for a human return to the Moon led by the US in the next decade.
Wolf, of course, won’t be around to help fund such an exploration initiative even if the White House suddenly changed its mind, since he announced earlier this week that he is not running for reelection in 2014. The CJS subcommittee’s vice chair, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), though, appears to share many of Wolf’s views. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Culberson agreed that the Moon should be the focus of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts, and, like Wolf, rejects any notion of US-China cooperation in space exploration. Of China’s lunar lander, Culberson said that it “was a strategic move on their part to attempt to lay claim to, and in the future exploit the mineral resources of the Moon,” noting the landing site is reportedly rich in rare earth elements.
The concern expressed by Reps. Wolf and Culberson, though, does not necessarily extend to the general public. Results of a poll released Thursday by Rasmussen Reports showed that 33% of Americans considered the Chinese lunar landing as “bad” for the US. However, 45% said the landing had no impact on the US. The poll also included questions on whether the US should resume human missions to the Moon in the next decade and whether there will be “a superpower race to win control of the Moon,” but the polling organization withheld those results for its subscribers.