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4-year space flight gap worries NASA officials

Beijing, China, 2 April 2007: NASA officials and U.S. policymakers are worried America’s space program will suffer because of a four-year gap in manned space flight beginning near the end of 2010 when the space shuttle program winds down.

The next-generation spacecraft, the Orion capsule, won’t be ready for manned flight until March 2015 for the next phase of space exploration to the moon and Mars. During those four years the United States will have to rely on other nations if it wants to send astronauts and cargo to the international space station.

“Who knows what the geopolitics is going to be like in 2015?” asks U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences subcommittee. “Is Russia still going to be allied with us? Would they possibly be allied with China at that point?”

The space agency has been in this position before. There was a six-year gap between the last Apollo flight in 1975 and the first shuttle flight in 1981. “It is not a very desirable situation,” said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “We will have an orbiting destination that we have spent multiple billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money to develop. To not be able to get there except for the good will of others is a little ironic.”

NASA fears the United States will lose its edge in competition with other nations as Russia, Europe, Japan, China and India improve their ability to send humans and cargo into space.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin recently told lawmakers China’s ambitious space program could feasibly beat the United States in the race back to the moon, although he and outside experts say there’s no indication yet China is on that path.