WASHINGTON — The United States must prioritize its international partnerships and harness the private sector to maintain its position as the global leader in space, legislators said Wednesday.

Several senators expressed a growing concern at a Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing that China could replace the U.S. as the preferred partner for other nations in the new space race.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chair of the committee, said that as the competition to commercialize space heats up, the U.S. must stay ahead of rising space powers, most notably China, by maintaining its position as the international partner of choice and focal point of space commerce.

He called the International Space Station, a low-Earth orbit space station inhabited by fifteen countries, a “key part” of global U.S. leadership.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, talks with Kevin O’Connell after the hearing. (HENRY ERLANDSON/MNS)

China is not included in the current international space agreement between the fifteen nations that built the ISS. However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said China is close to launching its own low-Earth orbit space station, which is drawing interest from several European space agencies.

Bridenstine said that China would likely be willing to fund the entire operation, whereas the U.S. funds roughly 77 percent of the ISS.

“While we are paying a bigger percentage, we are getting more benefits,” Bridenstine said. “However, we need to change that paradigm if we want to go to the moon and then Mars.”

Kevin O’Connell of the Department of Commerce said the ISS is crucial for American commercial interests in space. He also invited the private sector to play a bigger role in developing new technologies and establishing regulatory policies on things like orbital debris and data gathering.

O’Connell said he wants to “make the United States the flag of choice for responsible space innovation, investment, and operation.

“We need to have really impressive goals and stunning achievements that the world can get behind,” Bridenstine said. These goals include establishing a permanent commercial presence on the moon and landing an American astronaut on Mars, according to Bridenstine.

President Trump’s proposed 2019 budget slashed all federal funding for the ISS by 2025, something that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called “unwise.” Sen. Cruz added that it would be nothing short of “catastrophic” to see China become the frontrunner in space if the ISS no longer exists.

In response, the committee held a series of hearings last year and passed legislation to fund ISS until 2030. This move was prior to the release of Trump’s 2020 budget, which reneged on last year’s budget guidelines and continued funding for the program despite cutting $500 million from NASA.

Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., strongly opposed these budget cuts.

“I appreciate the administration’s focus on space, but the budget put forward undermines this goal,” she said. “We need to make sure that there are resources and the budget seems to cut some of the very programs that we need to keep this leadership.” Cantwell pointed to cuts in STEM engagement and Earth science missions as major causes for concern.