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A new space race? China adds urgency to US return to moon

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By Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s not just rocket fuel propelling America’s first moonshot after a half-century lull. Rivalry with China’s flourishing space program is helping drive NASA’s effort to get back into space in a bigger way, as both nations push to put people back on the moon and establish the first lunar bases.

American intelligence, military and political leaders make clear they see a host of strategic challenges to the U.S. in China’s space program, in an echo of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that prompted the 1960s’ race to the moon. That’s as China is quickly matching U.S. civil and military space accomplishments and notching new ones of its own.

On the military side, the U.S. and China trade accusations of weaponizing space. Senior U.S. defense officials warn that China and Russia are building capabilities to take out the satellite systems that underpin U.S. intelligence, military communications and early warning networks.

There’s also a civilian side to the space race. The U.S. is wary of China taking the lead in space exploration and commercial exploitation, and pioneering the technological and scientific advances that would put China ahead in power in space and in prestige down on Earth.

“In a decade, the United States has gone from the unquestioned leader in space to merely one of two peers in a competition,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, declared this week at a Senate Armed Services hearing. “Everything our military does relies on space.”

At another hearing last year, NASA administrator Bill Nelson brandished an image transmitted by a Chinese rover that had just plunked down on Mars. “The Chinese government … they’re going to be landing humans on the moon” soon, he said. “That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff.”

NASA, the U.S. civilian space agency, is awaiting a new launch date this month or in October for its Artemis 1 uncrewed test moonshot. Technical problems scrubbed the first two launch attempts in recent weeks.

China likewise aims to send astronauts to the moon this decade, as well as establish a robotic research station there. Both the U.S. and China intend to establish bases for intermittent crews on the moon’s south pole after that.

Russia has aligned with China’s moon program, while 21 nations have joined a U.S.-initiated effort meant to bring guidelines and order to the civil exploration and development of space.

The parallel efforts come 50 years after U.S. astronauts last pulled shut the doors on an Apollo module and blasted away from the moon, in December 1972.

Some space policy experts bat down talk of a new space race, seeing big differences from John F. Kennedy’s Cold War drive to outdo the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and be the first to get people on the moon. This time, both the U.S. and China see moon programs as a stepping stone in phased programs toward exploring, settling and potentially exploiting the resources and other untapped economic and strategic opportunities offered by the moon, Mars and space at large.

Beyond the gains in technology, science and jobs that accompany space programs, Artemis promoters point to the potential of mining minerals and frozen water on the moon, or using the moon as a base to go prospecting on asteroids — the Trump administration in particular emphasized the mining prospects. There’s potential in tourism and other commercial efforts.

And for space more broadly, Americans alone have tens of thousands of satellites overhead in what the Space Force says is a half-trillion dollar global space economy. Satellites guide GPS, process credit card purchases, help keep TV, radio and cell phone feeds going, and predict weather. They ensure the military and intelligence community’s ability to keep track of perceived threats.

And in a world where China and Russia are collaborating to try to surpass the U.S. in space, and where some point to private space efforts led by U.S. billionaires as rendering costly NASA rocket launches unnecessary, the U.S. would regret leaving the glory and strategic advantages from developing the moon and space solely to the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tesla magnate Elon Musk, Artemis proponents say.

The moon programs signal that “space is going to be an arena of competition on the prestige front, demonstrating advanced technical expertise and know-how, and then also on the military front as well,” said Aaron Bateman, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and a member of the Space Policy Institute.

“People who are supportive of Artemis and people who see it as a tool of competition, they want the United States to be at the table in shaping the future of exploration on other celestial bodies,” Bateman said.

There’s no shortage of such warnings as the Artemis program moves toward lift-off. “Beijing is working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” the U.S. intelligence community warned this year in its annual threat assessment.

A Pentagon-commissioned study group contended last month that “China appears to be on track to surpass the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045.” It called that part of a Chinese plan to promote authoritarianism and communism down here on Earth.

It’s sparked occasional heated words between Chinese and U.S. officials.

China’s space program was guided by peaceable principles, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July. “Some U.S. officials are constantly smearing China’s normal and reasonable outer space undertakings,” Zhao said.

Flying on the mightiest rocket ever built by NASA, Artemis 1 aims for a five-week demo flight that would put test dummies into lunar orbit.

If all goes well with that, U.S. astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land on it in 2025, culminating a program that will have cost $93 billion over more than a decade of work.

NASA intends that a woman and a person of color will be on the first U.S. crew touching foot on the moon again.

Lessons learned in getting back to the moon will aid in the next step in crewed flights, to Mars, the space agency says.

China’s ambitious space program, meanwhile, is a generation behind that of the United States. But its secretive, military-linked program is developing fast and creating distinctive missions that could put Beijing on the leading edge of space flight.

Already, China has that rover on Mars, joining a U.S. one already there. China carved out a first with its landing on the far side of the moon.

Chinese astronauts are overhead now, putting the finishing touches on a permanent orbiting space station.

A 1967 U.N. space treaty meant to start shaping the guardrails for space exploration bans anyone from claiming sovereignty over a celestial body, putting a military base on it, or putting weapons of mass destruction into space.

“I don’t think it’s at all by coincidence or happenstance that it is now in this period of what people are claiming is renewed great-power competition that the United States is actually investing the resources to go back,” said Bateman, the scholar on space and national security. “Time will tell if this turns into a sustained program.”

Competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Does rivalry with the Chinese “ensure greater sustained interest in our space program? Sure,” Coons said. “But I don’t think that’s necessarily a competition that leads to conflict.

“I think it can be a competition — like the Olympics — that simply means that each team and each side is going to push higher and faster. And as a result, humanity is likely to benefit,” he said.

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Crime

Ex-Twitter execs face GOP questioning on Hunter Biden story

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By Farnoush Amiri in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans questioned former Twitter executives Wednesday about the platform’s handling of reporting on Hunter Biden, the president’s son, fulfilling a party promise to investigate what they have long asserted is anti-conservative bias at social media companies.

Three former executives appeared before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee to testify for the first time about the company’s decision in the weeks before the 2020 election to initially block from Twitter a New York Post article about the contents of a laptop belonging to Hunter Biden.

“Today’s hearing is the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s first step in examining the coordination between the federal government and Big Tech to restrict protected speech and interfere in the democratic process,” Rep. James Comer, the chairman, said in his opening statement.

The witnesses Republicans subpoenaed to testify are Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s former chief legal officer; James Baker, the company’s former deputy general counsel; and Yoel Roth, former head of safety and integrity.

Democrats have a witness of their own, Anika Collier Navaroli, a former employee with Twitter’s content moderation team. She testified last year to the House committee that investigated the Capitol riot about Twitter’s preferential treatment of Donald Trump until the then-president was banned from Twitter two years ago.

The hearing is the GOP’s opening act into what lawmakers promise will be a widespread investigation into President Joe Biden and his family, with the tech companies another prominent target of their oversight efforts.

The White House criticized congressional Republicans for staging “a bizarre political stunt,” hours after Biden’s State of the Union address where he detailed the bipartisan progress made in his first two years in office.

“This appears to be the latest effort by the House Republican majority’s most extreme MAGA members to question and relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election,” White House spokesperson Ian Sams said in a statement Wednesday. “This is not what the American people want their leaders to work on.”

The New York Post first reported in October 2020, weeks before the presidential election, that it had received from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, a copy of a hard drive from a laptop that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter blocked people from sharing links to the story for several days.

Months later, Twitter’s then-CEO, Jack Dorsey, called the company’s communications around the Post article “not great.”He added that blocking the article’s URL with “zero context” around why it was blocked was “unacceptable.”

The newspaper story was greeted at the time with skepticism due to questions about the laptop’s origins, including Giuliani’s involvement, and because top officials in the Trump administration had already warned that Russia was working to denigrate Joe Biden before the White House election.

The Kremlin had interfered in the 2016 race by hacking Democratic emails that were subsequently leaked, and fears that Russia would meddle again in the 2020 race were widespread across Washington.

Just last week, lawyers for the younger Biden asked the Justice Department to investigate people who say they accessed his personal data. But they did not acknowledge that that data came from a laptop that Hunter Biden is purported to have dropped off at a computer repair shop.

The issue was also reignited recently after Elon Musk took over Twitter as CEO and began to release a slew of company information to independent journalists, what he has called the “Twitter Files.”

The documents and data largely show internal debates among employees over the decision to temporarily censor the story about Hunter Biden. The tweet threads lacked substantial evidence of a targeted influence campaign from Democrats or the FBI, which has denied any involvement in Twitter’s decision-making.

Nonetheless, Comer and other Republicans have used the Post story, which has not been independently verified by The Associated Press, as the basis for what they say is another example of the Biden family’s “influence peddling.”

One of the witnesses on Wednesday, Baker, is expected to be the target of even more Republican scrutiny.

Baker was the FBI’s general counsel during the opening of two of the bureau’s most consequential investigations in history: the Hillary Clinton investigation and a separate inquiry into potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans have long criticized the FBI’s handling of both investigations.

For Democrats, Navaroli is expected to counter the GOP argument by testifying about how Twitter allowed Trump’s tweets despite the misinformation they sometimes contained.

Navaroli testified to the Jan. 6 committee last year that Twitter executives often tolerated Trump’s posts despite them including false statements and violations of the company’s own rules because executives knew the platform was his “favorite and most-used … and enjoyed having that sort of power.”

The Jan. 6 committee used Navaroli’s testimony in one of its public hearings last summer but did not identify her by name.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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Disaster

Turkey, Syria quake is deadliest in decade

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The catastrophic earthquake that razed thousands of buildings in Turkey and Syria became one of the deadliest quakes worldwide in more than a decade Wednesday and the death toll kept rising, surpassing 11,000.

Rescue crews braved freezing overnight temperatures in quake-hit areas in both countries in hopes of reaching more survivors and to pull more bodies from the rubble.

The latest on the earthquake:

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The European Union says Syria has asked for humanitarian assistance to deal with the victims of the devastating earthquake and insisted sanctions that it has imposed on the Syrian government had no impact on its potential to help.

EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Janez Lenarčič said Wednesday that Syria had asked for anything from search and rescue aid to medicine and food. He said the EU was encouraging its members to contribute and denied that sanctions were affecting the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The government in Syria, wracked by a 12-year civil war and refugee crisis, has been under EU sanctions since 2011 for its suppression of the population. The sanctions include the freezing of funds and travel bans on hundreds of people and entities. They are focused on paralyzing sectors of the economy from which the regime profits.

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS:

Wreckage, rescue and hope in Turkey’s earthquake epicenter

— Aid to quake-hit Syria slowed by sanctions, war’s divisions

— A glance at some of the world’s deadliest earthquakes in the last 25 years

— Find more AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/earthquakes

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German lawmakers stood for a minute of silence to honor the earthquake victims ahead of a speech to parliament by Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Scholz said Wednesday that Germany is helping Turkey and was in close contact with the United Nations on getting humanitarian aid to the Syrian earthquake area “because the need is enormous there, too.”

He said that the disaster shows again “how vital this cross-border access is that we have advocated for years.”

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Volunteer rescue organization White Helmets says six people, including four children, were pulled out of the rubble alive during overnight rescue operations in rebel-held parts of northwest Syria.

In the town of Harem, paramedics were able to communicate with a woman and her son until they were pulled out of a collapsed building. The boy was able to walk but appeared dazed as two paramedics helped him to safety.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has toured a temporary shelter area in the city of Kahramanmaras, where more than 200 tents have been set up on the grounds of a stadium to house earthquake survivors.

He was later scheduled to travel to the quake’s epicenter in the town of Pazarcik and to Turkey’s most affected province, Hatay

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Turkey’s stock exchange stopped trading after circuit breakers were tripped by sharp declines in the benchmark BIST index following Monday’s devastating quake.

The Borsa Istanbul’s public disclosure platform announced the suspension on Wednesday. It said trading in equities, futures and the derivatives markets had been suspended, but gave no further details.

The benchmark had fallen more than 7% earlier in the morning. It sank 8.6% on Tuesday. The catastrophe has added to the country’s woes as it contends with high inflation and an economic downturn.

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A former journalist described seeing the removal of eight bodies from a collapsed building in the Turkish city of Malatya in temperatures dropping to minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit).

Ozel Pikal told the Associated Press by telephone on Wednesday how the bodies were placed side by side and covered in blankets as rescuers waited for vehicles to take them to morgues. He said he thinks the victims may have frozen to death.

Pikal spoke of “no hope left” in the southeastern city because “no one is coming out alive from the rubble.” He said more than 100 people may be trapped in a collapsed hotel, adding that there was a shortage of “professional” rescue teams in the area he was in.

Pikal said more earth-moving machines are needed because “our hands cannot pick up anything because of the cold.” He said the elderly and children are having a particularly difficult time as residents are staying in tents pitched on ice.

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Rescuers have pulled 10 people out of the rubble alive in the Turkish city of Besni, including four children, Polish officials said.

The commander of the Polish rescue team in the city, Grzegorz Borowiec, said on Polish television channel TVN24 on Wednesday that more than 30 buildings have collapsed in the city of some 37,000 residents.

Borowiec said it crews 12 hours to get through several layers of concrete to pull a woman out alive.

The Polish contingent includes 76 rescuers and eight trained dogs.

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The bodies of more than 100 Syrians who died in Turkey as a result of the earthquake have been brought back home for burial through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

Mazen Alloush, an official on the Syrian side of the border said Wednesday that 20 more bodies were on their way to the border, adding that all of them were Syrian refugees who fled war in their country.

Turkey is home to some 3.6 million Syrian refugees who fled the civil war in their country that broke out 12 years ago.

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Pope Francis is asking for prayers and demonstrations of solidarity for the people of Syria and Turkey following the earthquake there.

Francis led hundreds of people gathered for his weekly general audience Wednesday in reciting the “Hail Mary” prayer. He offered thanks to the rescue workers searching for survivors and the people caring for residents left homeless.

The pope said that his thoughts go now to the people of Turkey and Syria and that it’s “with sadness” that he prays for them, expressing “my closeness to the people, the relatives of victims and all those who are suffering from this devastating calamity.”

Francis also asked for prayers for Ukrainians, particularly those without heat or electricity in frigid temperatures.

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The Mediterranean island nation of Malta is sending a contingent of 32 people and a rescue dog to Turkey to help with rescue efforts following the earthquake.

Malta’s Civil Protection Department is also collecting items from the general public to send as aid. The Maltese Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it would be sending financial support to Syrians affected by the quake via the International Rescue Committee.

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The United Nations says it’s “exploring all avenues” to get supplies to rebel-held northwestern Syria, and it released $25 million from its emergency fund to help kick-start the humanitarian response in Turkey and Syria.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the road leading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to northern Syria was damaged, temporarily disrupting aid delivery to the rebel-held northwest. He said the border crossing itself “is actually intact.”

Bab al-Hawa is the only crossing through which U.N. aid is allowed into the area.

Dujarric said the U.N. is preparing a convoy to cross the conflict lines within Syria. But that would likely require a new agreement with President Bashar Assad’s government, which has laid siege to rebel-held areas throughout the civil war.

In Turkey, Dujarric said, Syrian refugees make up more than 1.7 million of the 15 million people inhabiting the 10 provinces impacted by the earthquake.

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