WASHINGTON- America’s once clear dominance in space is eroding as other nations, including China, Iran and North Korea, step up their activities, a panel of experts told the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Thursday.
“Others are catching up fast,” said Marty Hauser, vice president for Washington operations at the Space Foundation, an advocacy organization headquarters in Colorado Springs. “Of particular note over the past decade is the emergence of China’s human spaceflight capabilities.”
Russia now leads the world in space launches. China recently became the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to send its own astronauts out for a spacewalk.
“China is laying the groundwork for a long-term space program with or without us,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. “We should worry if we’re not out there with them.”
China’s rocket launch facilities are “state of the art,” Hauser said.
In a competition once limited to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, 60 nations now have their own space agencies, panelists said. Thirteen nations have active space programs, and eight are capable of launching their own satellites into orbit.
In the last 10 years, the number of countries with communications satellites or GPS systems in orbit has increased from 27 to 37, according to Ray Williamson, executive director of the Secure World Foundation, a space advocacy organization headquartered in Superior, Colo.
“Countries as diverse as Algeria, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela, South Africa and Turkey have now become part of the so-called space club,” he said.
Last year, China launched a Venezuelan-owned communications satellite that “enabled Venezuela to extend its influence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean,” Williamson said. The satellite broadcasts Venezuela’s TeleSUR channel, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has styled as the alternative to U.S.-based news broadcasts.
So far, the United States operates the only complete set of global positioning satellites (GPS) in orbit, but Russia will launch the final six satellites to complete its own system next March, according to J.P. Stevens, vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade organization for the commercial space industry. India and Japan also are building their own GPS systems.
Panelists attributed the relative decline in U.S. space leadership to NASA’s fluctuating budgets and repeated changes of direction as administrations and congresses come and go. The end of Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union is also responsible for the loss of interest.