Space is the Place to Compete with China
Why America should press its advantage in the peaceful exploration of space
Last Saturday, China became just the second nation on Earth to successfully land a robotic explorer on the surface of Mars. Previously, only the United States had managed that particular feat, most recently when the rover Perseverance alighted on the Red Planet last February. Starting with the Viking landers in 1976, the United States has successfully reached the Martian surface nine times. The Soviet Union made four attempts to land on Mars in the 1970s and received just 20 seconds of data from one lander, while two European Space Agency missions in 2003 and 2016 were lost attempting to land.
While the Chinese space program’s achievement remains truly impressive, there’s no reason for the United States to panic. Indeed, America’s own space program appears set for its own interplanetary version of the roaring twenties. Already this year NASA has landed Perseverance on Mars, conducted the first powered flights on another planet with the Ingenuity helicopter, and launched the second operational Commercial Crew mission to the International Space Station. What’s more, NASA has a quartet of important launches on deck later this year:
The third operational Commercial Crew mission flown by SpaceX;
An orbital flight test of the Boeing CST-100 Commercial Crew spacecraft;
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope; and
The first mission of the Artemis Program featuring the massive Space Launch System rocket.
While these last two launches face the possibility (if not probability) of delays, this aggressive schedule makes clear that America still remains the world’s leading spacefaring nation – the semblance of a decade-long lull following the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle notwithstanding.
Still, it’s only natural to force recent events like China’s Mars rover landing or its successful launch of a new space station module into existing mental models of a space race between ideological rivals. But if talk of a new space race with China akin to the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union misleads, it’s nonetheless important to keep the geopolitical aspects of space exploration in the forefront of our minds.
China does in fact conduct its space program very differently from the United States. Just look at the differences in which NASA and China’s space agency handled their successful Mars rover landings: NASA openly broadcast Perseverance’s landing to the world, while China’s space agency kept tight control over information about its own lander’s status. But that distinction seems minor compared with China’s lackadaisical approach to its own space debris, most recently with the uncontrolled re-entry of a heavy-lift rocket first stage into the atmosphere after a successful launch.
Moreover, China and Russia have signaled their intent to cooperate closely in space moving forward. Moscow and Beijing signed an agreement in March to build a station on or around the Moon, seemingly in response to NASA’s own plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface. For its part, moreover, Russia stated it would withdraw from the International Space Station in 2025 and launch its own, new space station the same year.
In short, space exploration has rapidly become an arena for peaceful – or at least largely constructive – geopolitical competition in a way the world hasn’t seen since the end of the Cold War. It’s also a contest that reflects the international scene as it exists today, with America in a strong pole position and China an energetic up-and-comer. America’s traditional allies in Europe and East Asia likewise remain closely tied to the U.S. space program, while Russia seems to be in the midst of shifting the focus of its international space exploration relationships away from the United States and toward China. Newcomers like India and the United Arab Emirates have also emerged over the past decade, with both countries sending orbiters to Mars.
In this international context, it’s imperative for the United States to do what it takes remain the world’s leading spacefaring nation. Space exploration provides a point of national pride and international prestige that ought to be emphasized at a time of discord and division at home. It allows Americans to see the best in themselves and show the world what the United States has to offer, expanding the frontiers of our shared knowledge all while investing in high-technology industries at home. Equally important, America’s open, public-facing, and civilian-led space exploration program provides a sharp contrast with China’s relatively closed and opaque space program.
Here, the United States has a strong head start: the likelihood of a roaring twenties for NASA remains high. Indeed, the construction of the Gateway – a small space station near the Moon – and the return of American astronauts to the Moon look likely to happen by the end of the decade. In that enterprise, NASA will have the support and participation of a formidable coalition of traditional American allies including the European Space Agency, Japan’s JAXA, and South Korea’s aerospace agency. What’s more, later this decade NASA and the European Space Agency plan to begin the complex and challenging process of returning Martian soil samples collected by the Perseverance rover back to Earth.
The Biden administration appears to grasp the significance of the challenge, at least in part. In contrast with its predecessors, it wasted little time appointing former Sen. Bill Nelson as NASA administrator. Its initial budget request contained a 6.3 percent increase in funding for NASA, including continued support for Artemis and the Mars Sample Return mission. President Biden himself has taken to using space exploration as an example of American ingenuity and prowess, citing the achievement of the Perseverance rover in a number of speeches to audiences at home and abroad.
But both the Biden administration and NASA still need to navigate the rocks and shoals of Congressional politics to keep America’s space program on track. The recent award of the contract for NASA’s lunar lander to SpaceX raised hackles in Congress, where Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced an amendment requiring NASA to fund a second human landing system – a mandate that would give Washington-based company Blue Origin a second shot at NASA funds. However, Congress doesn’t appear set to give NASA the money it needs to fund two separate lunar landers - though Administrator Nelson has requested some $5.4 billion for the project as part of the Biden administration’s jobs plan.
Despite these challenges, though, space exploration still represents the best way for the United States to peacefully and constructively compete with China on all fronts: geopolitical, economic, and scientific and technological. It’s an approach that provides a stark contrast with the conflict-oriented and often xenophobic approach put forward by many on the right as well as the head-in-the-sand appeasement offered by the progressive left. All at once, space exploration provides a way for the United States to invest significantly in its own prosperity at home, enhance its standing abroad, and prove that democracy can still deliver on big and ambitious projects.
In today’s world, space exploration offers us a challenge we should be unwilling to postpone – and one we ought to be eager to accept.