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NASA's chief says China is being 'very, very secretive' and pretending its space projects aren't linked to the military

Matthew Loh   

NASA's chief says China is being 'very, very secretive' and pretending its space projects aren't linked to the military
  • NASA chief Bill Nelson accused China on Wednesday of secretly working on military projects in space.
  • Nelson told lawmakers that NASA believes Beijing is masking these projects as civilian efforts.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration head Bill Nelson warned on Wednesday that China is passing off military endeavors in space as civilian projects, reiterating that the US is in a "race" with Beijing to reach the moon in the 21st century.

"China has made extraordinary strides, especially in the last 10 years, but they are very, very secretive," Nelson told members of the House Appropriations Committee at a 2024 budget hearing.

"We believe that a lot of their, so-called civilian space programs is a military program," Nelson continued. "And I think, in effect, we are in a race."

Nelson made these remarks as he pitched a $25.4 billion budget for his agency to lawmakers, just under 0.4% of the total $6.5 trillion US government budget for 2024.

For years, he and other NASA officials have highlighted concerns that China may seek to bully out other countries in space — particularly on the moon — if it establishes dominance there.

"My concern would be if China got there first and suddenly said: 'Okay, this is our territory, you stay out,'" Nelson said.

The NASA chief alluded to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea claimed by several nations. China has attempted to exert sovereignty over the islands, claiming all territory within a "nine-dash line" that spans most of the sea.

The US aims to land astronauts on the moon by September 2026 under its Artemis missions, pushing the deadline back from 2025 due to delays. Most of its allies with ambitions in space have signed an international agreement, the Artemis Accords, that outlines principles for space exploration, such as publicly sharing collected information.

China and Russia have not signed the accords, but are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bars installing weapons and military bases in space.

Beijing has said that it hopes to complete its first crewed mission to the moon by 2030, making it the second country in the world to land a person there. It also plans to establish a base on lunar soil in the next five years.

But speaking to lawmakers on Wednesday, Nelson said that China might accelerate its plans to close the four-year gap between its moon landing and NASA's.

"Their latest date that they have said that they're going to land is 2030, but that keeps moving up," Nelson said. "And so I think it's incumbent on us to get there first and to utilize our research efforts for peaceful purposes."

"Their science is good, their engineering is good, and the proof's in the pudding, they now have a space station up there," Nelson added.

Meanwhile, China has repeatedly denied that it intends to establish any military presence in outer space. "Space war can not be won and must never be fought," its ambassador to the UN said in 2021.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent outside regular business hours by Business Insider.