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What the U.S. Can Do to Prevent a New Sino-U.S. Space Race
With all the recent rover landings, satellite launches, and Moon explorations, the space age is on the horizon. We look toward the stars with the same fascination as the Europeans once looked toward the New World, hoping that we can unite as a species to reach greater height despite our differences. Yet one factor complicates this scene — that space is not separate from the Earth.
This realization has escalated from potential collaboration into a cutthroat competition between China and the U.S., today’s two major players. While the U.S. has traditionally dominated the cosmos and shunned China from international space endeavors, China is catching up quickly. It is time for the U.S. to reconsider their space strategy — lest another perhaps more bitter space war commence.
Space collaboration has been quite a foreign concept for the U.S. and China. Since its creation, the American-led International Space Station (ISS) has never invited China, even though it included countries with far less developed space programs such as Malaysia. This rejection of China was codified into law when Congress passed the Wolf Amendment in 2011. It officially barred any American contact with the Chinese space agency for fear of “national security” unless Congress and the FBI approved. This includes not only direct collaboration but the trade of space-related goods too.
Despite this harsh resistance, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has made significant strides. In 2019, China opened the doors to the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST), the largest telescope on the planet. Last December, China brought back rock samples from the far side of the Moon in the Chang’e 4 space mission. The creation of the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, capable of linking up to 70% of all Chinese smartphones, means that China will soon no longer depend on the U.S.-based GPS system. China is also expected to launch their own Tiangong space station by 2022, which may become the only space station once the International Space Station is decommissioned.
In contrast, due to chronic underfunding, NASA has plateaued in progress. For instance, the U.S. canceled the 2010 Constellation program which aimed to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon and will likely have to delay a similar mission scheduled for 2024. The U.S. Space Force, created in 2019 by Congress, was criticized in a July report as one “lacking a clear plan.” Instead, the U.S.’s space potential seems to currently lie in private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Horizon, and Virgin Galactic.
Furthermore, in light of China’s impressive recent developments, many other countries are joining forces with the Chinese, which could further accelerate their progress. Earlier this year they signed an agreement with the Russian national space agency, Roscosmos, to build an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) on the surface of the moon. They further stress that this endeavor is open to “all interested countries and international partners.” With China’s low production costs and high efficiency, likely, other countries will soon join too and spurn the U.S.
Faced with these realities, what can the U.S. do? The solution is to recouple with China, and provide more funding to NASA to cooperate with private companies.
At first glance, recoupling might not seem feasible. We are currently decoupled due to distrust and espionage fears, especially following the Sino-American trade war and accusations of intellectual property theft. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans feel “cold” towards China, so it may also be politically unwise for any administration to seek recoupling. And who knows whether or not China will agree to recouple?
First, China will likely accept the offer. The U.S. is still ahead, so if Americans remain committed, China probably cannot catch up any time soon. China seems to be inviting cooperation. In addition to their global invitation to join the ILRS project, the Chinese have offered to share data from their lunar rock sample and grant all countries access to their FAST telescope. Chinese astronaut Nie Haisheng has personally expressed “a strong desire to fly with astronauts from other countries” and “go to the International Space Station.”
On top of that, an element of pride is involved in China’s peaking patriotism. China’s historical focus has been to re-establish itself as a world power after pillaging the West in the last few centuries, so recoupling with China would symbolically achieve this goal. The CCP would also be happy to attribute this success to convincing the Chinese of their competence, especially in the wake of potentially controversial large-scale reforms made in the past few months.
Next, U.S. fears of national security may be somewhat premature or otherwise avoidable. Commercial space technology can often be repurposed into military technology and vice versa so that worries may be blown out of proportion. Chinese articles often state that China harbors no malicious intent and simply wishes to develop to where the U.S. was 20-30 years ago — an expression of Chinese pride. Yet even if one doubts this claim, collaboration is still possible. The U.S. can assuage national security fears by focusing on more minor sensitive issues — for instance, removing space debris, which damages all satellites. In these mutually beneficial endeavors, we can ease tensions and perhaps open the doors to more successful future negotiations. In the meantime, the U.S. could access China’s gigantic industrial machine and drastically improve production efficiency. This also ensures that the U.S. does not alienate other countries deterred by an underfunded American space program and rising American prices.
Finally, it is also crucial to maintain a partnership between the public and the private. Private space companies are currently much more efficient than NASA in terms of both cost and time — so much so that NASA has already invested in and delegated particular satellite launches to SpaceX. On the other hand, in conjunction with the Space Force, NASA is still needed to manage risk and safety and coordinate the major plans. It is a private-public complex that — as we saw with U.S. vaccine rollouts — that drives efficiency.
The joint Apollo-Soyuz mission by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War marked the end of a nearly two-decade-long space race in 1975. As we quarrel over worldly affairs, perhaps it’s time to look towards the sky. Probably in a joint venture into the unknown, we can re-establish a sense of connection as human beings in the limitless expanse of space. But if we do so, we must act fast; if China surpasses us, we may be rejected — and left in the space dust.