Did Trump Just Kick off the Space Race 2.0 With China?

While China pursues its space plan, Donald Trump signs a directive to send U.S. astronauts back to the Moon.

Did Trump Just Kick off the Space Race 2.0 With China?
Credit: Official White House Photo

The United States just formally reinvigorated its ambitions in space exploration.

On December 11, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a directive ordering the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to send astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Richard Nixon’s administration — and someday to Mars.

According to the White House, Trump authorized NASA to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.” Specifically, the United States will “lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

During the White House signing ceremony, Trump announced to the world: “The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery. It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use.”

“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, ” Trump added. “This is a giant step toward that inspiring future and toward reclaiming America’s proud destiny in space.”

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Notably, Trump highlighted the potential military application of space technology, saying, “space has so much to do with so many other applications, including a military application. So we are the leader and we’re going to stay the leader, and we’re going to increase it many-fold.”

Although he didn’t single China out, Trump appeared to imply that China has been challenging U.S. leadership in space technology.

In recent years, China has been actively carrying out its grand space plan. As The Diplomat reported earlier, China is scheduled to launch its first Mars probe in 2020. The chief architect of China’s Mars mission has also announced China’s aim to achieve three goals — orbiting, landing, and roving exploration — at the same time during the first Mars probe.

China’s investments in space technology have already triggered anxiety in the United States. In September 2016, the Space Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing asking “Are We Losing the Space Race to China?”

Regarding Trump’s directive on space exploration, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang expressed China’s interest in cooperation on space exploration.

At the ministry’s regular press briefing on December 12, Lu said:

China is pleased to see the scientific and technological progress in the exploration and peaceful use of outer space by various countries. We believe that continuous progress in peaceful use of outer space will benefit the humankind as a whole ultimately, and China stands ready to step up cooperation with the rest of the international community in this regard.

However, Lu changed his tone toward Trump’s reference to military application of space technology. He reiterated China’s position on preventing the weaponization of outer space and urged the international community to reach a consensus on the issue.  

That being said, China has never stopped its own advance in developing space technology. In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced China’s grand project to explore the universe and designated every April 24 as China’s Space Day. “To become a strong space power is our long-pursuing dream,” said Xi.