(HOUSTON) -- When Chris Ferguson, commander of the space shuttle Atlantis, left the International Space Station for the last time, he left behind a symbolic gift. It was a small U.S. flag that had flown in space 30 years before, on the very first shuttle flight in 1981, and it is to be retrieved by the next astronauts to be launched from U.S. soil -- something that may be several years away.
The astronauts of Atlantis are ending the space shuttle era just as other countries ramp up their own space programs. If U.S. astronauts are going to fly over the next few years, they will have to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for $56 million each--with that ticket price souring past $60 million in years to come. If a space explorer is going to plant a new flag on the moon, it may very well be Chinese.
And if that is bittersweet for the astronauts, it gets some leaders in Washington angry.
"The United States needs a reality check on China," said Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican whose appropriations subcommittee oversees NASA. "China also is aggressively spying on our country, including stealing the very technology needed for a space program. We cannot cede the space frontier to the Chinese."
China has a smaller, slower-moving space program than the United States, but one that appears to be methodically planned. It didn't launch its first astronaut until 2003, but Chinese leaders say it will start assembling a small space station this year, launch a rover to the moon next year, and land astronauts on the moon in the 2020s.
"As countries like China attempt to challenge U.S. leadership in space, we need a similar sense of mission to guide NASA going forward," Rep. Wolf said.
Some politicians and space people see the shuttles' retirement as a threat to U.S. security, technological leadership, and pride as well. A lot of people, including some of the best-known figures in U.S. space history, don't like the idea of depending on other countries.
"What if something goes wrong with the Soyuz?" asked John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth in 1962. Glenn turned 90 this week. "If we have a hiccup on the Soyuz right now, we don't have a manned program."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said, "The administration's delays put current and future American jobs and industries at risk, and hand over to competing nations a golden opportunity to take the global lead in technology."
Rep. Wolf said he hopes the Chinese threat, in particular, prompts America to reinvigorate its space effort, even in tough budget times.
"We need to make cuts, but we need to make smart cuts," he said in an interview with ABC News. "If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we're eating our seed corn."
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