U.S. Rep. Jim BridenstineU.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine

Longtime space advocate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) has been nominated by President Trump to be the next administrator of NASA. Birdenstine is known for his strong support for a new manned mission to the Moon, and for his belief that the United States needs to challenge China’s ever-expanding presence in space.

The nomination of the former Navy pilot and three-term Congressman from Oklahoma has been expected for some time, and was finally announced on Sept. 1. Previously, Trump tasked Vice President Mike Pence to lead a re-established the National Space Council aimed at reinvigorating and reasserting the U.S. presence in the space.

Bridenstine has been an active voice in the Congress for increasing the U.S. commitment to the space program. In 2016 Bridenstine introduced H.R. 4945, the American Space Renaissance Act, which sought to reform and modernize the U.S. space program in a comprehensive manner. While the act did not move forward, some of its elements were incorporated into later legislation.

The nomination could face a challenge in the Senate and has already prompted criticism from Florida’s two senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson. Florida is the home to NASA, and both Rubio and Nelson have complained that Bridenstine, a politician, lacks management experience.

However, some observers have speculated that Rubio’s opposition might have been partially motivated by Bridenstine’s support for Rubio’s primary opponent Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP presidential campaign, which caused relations between the Oklahoman and the Floridian to become bitter.

The private space flight industry has largely welcomed the news of Bridenstine’s nomination. Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), a private spaceflight advocacy group composed of space industry giants such as SpaceX and XCOR Aerospace, issued a statement praising President Trump’s nomination of Bridenstine. 

“NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Representative Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said S. Alan Stern, board chair of CSF. 

Similarly, several space experts have voiced support for Bridenstine. “[Jim Bridenstine] understands space technology, economics and policy better than most of the people who advise our other policy makers on these topics,” said space researcher and educator Greg Autry. Previously Greg Autry had served as the Trump administration’s liaison to NASA. “Far from being a politician, Bridenstine is a well-informed aviator and leader,” Autry said.

Challenging China’s Presence in Space

Bridenstine has previously expressed serious concerns about China’s space ambitions, as he sees the U.S. presence in space and competition with other adversaries there as intimately linked with national security. Bridenstine’s support for a new manned mission to the Moon is partially motivated by China’s ever-expanding presence on and around the Moon.

In this July 20, 1969 file photo, astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. stands next to a U.S. flag planted on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface. Jim Bridenstine, Trump’s newly nominated administrator of NASA, vows to compete with China in space by launching new manned mission to the Moon. (Neil A. Armstrong/NASA)

“As the cis-lunar economy develops, competition for locations and resources on the Moon is inevitable,” Jim Bridenstine wrote in a Blog post in 2016, “The Chinese currently have landers and rovers on the Moon. The United States does not.”

In another Blog post in 2015, Bridenstine wrote that: “We are seeing the Russians and Chinese attempt to deny space to us. The Russians are launching things into space that are not being registered with the agencies they would normally be registered with.”

“Space is no longer uncontested,” Bridenstine wrote. “It’s being contested, and it’s congested.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Bridenstine will head an agency that currently has an annual budget of more than $19 billion. The current budget however takes up less than 0.5 percent of the total federal budget, a tiny portion compared to NASA’s heyday. During the 1960s the United States allocated almost 5 percent of the annual federal budget to NASA to fund the manned space missions to the Moon.

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An aerial view shows the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in the remote Pingtang county in southwest China's Guizhou Province on Sept. 24, 2016. China has begun operating the world's largest radio telescope to help search for extraterrestrial life. (Liu Xu/Xinhua via AP)An aerial view shows the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in the remote Pingtang county in southwest China's Guizhou Province on Sept. 24, 2016. China has begun operating the world's largest radio telescope to help search for extraterrestrial life. (Liu Xu/Xinhua via AP)

BEIJING—The world’s largest radio telescope began searching for signals from stars and galaxies and, perhaps, extraterrestrial life Sunday in a project demonstrating China’s rising ambitions in space and its pursuit of international scientific prestige.

Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects as well as its military-backed space program, which saw the launch of China’s second space station earlier this month.

Measuring 500 meters in diameter, the radio telescope is nestled in a natural basin within a stunning landscape of lush green karst formations in southern Guizhou province. It took five years and $180 million to complete and surpasses that of the 300-meter Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a dish used in research on stars that led to a Nobel Prize.

The official Xinhua News Agency said hundreds of astronomers and enthusiasts watched the launch of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, in the county of Pingtang.

Researchers quoted by state media said FAST would search for gravitational waves, detect radio emissions from stars and galaxies and listen for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

“The ultimate goal of FAST is to discover the laws of the development of the universe,” Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state broadcaster CCTV.

“In theory, if there is civilization in outer space, the radio signal it sends will be similar to the signal we can receive when a pulsar (spinning neutron star) is approaching us,” Qian said.

Installation of the 4,450-panel structure, nicknamed Tianyan, or the Eye of Heaven, started in 2011 and was completed in July.

The telescope requires a radio silence within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius, resulting in the relocation of more than 8,000 people from their homes in eight villages to make way for the facility, state media said. Reports in August said the villagers would be compensated with cash or new homes from a budget of about $269 million from a poverty relief fund and bank loans.

CCTV reported that during a recent test, the telescope received radio signals from a pulsar that was 1,351 light-years from Earth.

The radio telescope has double the sensitivity of the Arecibo Observatory, and five to 10 times the surveying speed, Xinhua said.

China has also completed the construction of tourist facilities such as an observation deck on a nearby mountain, reports said. Such facilities can be a draw for visitors — the one in Puerto Rico draws about 90,000 visitors and some 200 scientists each year.

Earlier this month, China launched the Tiangong 2, its second space station and the latest step in its military-backed program that intends to send a mission to Mars in the coming years. In August, the country launched the first quantum satellite experts said would advance efforts to develop the ability to send communications that can’t be penetrated by hackers.

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