HOUSTON — There seems to be little hope of better defining U.S. space policy, given the current underfunded NASA vision of human expeditions to Mars and its ambitions to turn responsibility for low Earth orbit transportation over to commercial providers, according to members of an expert panel hosted by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Policymakers, some with ties to previous Republican as well as Democratic administrations, suggested that the nation’s space objectives must be more closely aligned with larger strategic interests, including formative relations with China.

The Jan. 24 forum, “Lost in Space: The Need for a Definitive U.S. Space Policy,” assembled in response to recent critical assessments from the National Research Council and the Space Foundation, found the nation’s current political climate too contentious to further define the kind of long-term goals that typically underpin human spaceflight initiatives. Washington will likely remain consumed by the country’s fiscal ills and short-term domestic issues for some time, forum participants predicted.

“I’m not very optimistic,” declared John Logsdon, founding director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. NASA’s emergence during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union and its early successes with the Apollo Moon missions gave it a national prominence that it has struggled ever since to regain, he said.

“Achieving Apollo so soon was not good for the space program. It used up the obvious destination right away,” Logsdon said. “Because it was defined as a race, it was not sustainable. It created an image of what NASA was about — large-scale engineering, achievements built around spaceflight with a large infrastructure to support the effort. In a sense, we have spent the past 40 years trying to escape the heritage of Apollo and figure a new direction that is more sustainable, more productive for the future.”

The U.S. should seek partnerships with China to establish a wider national relevance for its human space program, said Rice forum participant Leroy Chiao, a member of the Obama administration’s Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee and a former NASA astronaut.

“China would be a very different partner,” said Chiao, who believes closer ties could prevent a repeat of China’s 2007 anti-satellite weapons test that upset the global space community by creating potentially dangerous orbital debris.

However, Mark Albrecht, who served as executive secretary of the White House National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, cautioned the forum against equating a potential partnership with China with the ties forged between the U.S., the former Soviet Union and post-Cold War Russia.

“We didn’t need [Russia’s] technical capabilities. We did it because we felt we could offer them something that was in our national interest,” Albrecht said. “With China, the reason we are stumbling is because we don’t know the strategic objectives of the United States. Is [China] an adversary, are they our partner? Well, they are all of those things. We are just beginning to sort those out.”

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and a China watcher, finds the Washington space policy-making apparatus deeply fractured along military, civilian and commercial lines and paralyzed by too many agency-centric studies. While Beijing is not engaged in a Cold War space race, the U.S. must consider China’s ambitions in the field as it forges a new global strategic path, she told the forum.

“Leaders look to the future. If we are seen as ceding leadership [in space] to other countries, it will have larger strategic implications,” cautioned Johnson-Freese, who pointed to a formulation of larger U.S. strategic interests as offering the “biggest opportunity” for the space community to articulate its relevance as part of a larger national agenda.