Almost precisely 50 years ago, people around the world huddled by their television sets to witness the first humans walk on the moon. The broadcast came live, save for a two-second delay. Unsurprisingly, the occasion is being marked by much fanfare this year; no fewer than 10 documentaries will soon air to commemorate the Apollo 11 semicentennial.
Tributes to Apollo 11 only slightly overshadow headlines this year that China, too, had accomplished its own lunar “first” by landing a robotic rover on the far side of the moon. Writing for the Washington Post, foreign correspondent Rick Noack proclaimed that “a new space power [had been] born” as a result. The Chinese space program shows no indications of slowing: Beijing recently alluded that it hopes to begin sending manned missions to the moon by 2030, prompting the Trump administration to announce plans for a 2024 return. The politics involve a mix of prestige and security concerns. Because space technologies can often be repurposed for military ends, and because those technologies are often difficult to distinguish from peaceful ones, U.S. defense planners also worry about growing Chinese capabilities.
Such ambivalence is couched in the assumption that space achievements are zero-sum. Of course, the frame of national pride is integral to any country with space ambitions. Contests in the final frontier, however, seem to have distinct properties when compared to other sorts of rivalrous games. Was Apollo 11 such a significant event solely because it finally put the U.S. ahead of the Soviets after a string of embarrassing failures, or also because it heralded the first time humans had finally touched another celestial body, a notion that had captured science fiction dreamers since at least 1865 when Jules Verne penned his famous novel De la terre à la lune?
In ongoing research, I argue that hawkish discourse on space competition is out of step with media and public sentiment. Private American attitudes toward the Soviet lunar trials were actually quite nuanced, and often congratulatory. And new data suggests that “space enthusiasm,” rather than space nationalism, prevails in attitudes toward Chinese space activity as well. Relying on automated text analysis of newspaper coverage of moon launches by American adversaries, I compare language in the USSR’s Luna and China’s Chang’e programs. This type of analysis works by coding thousands of specific words and combinations of words on a seven-point “sentiment” scale, which measures the author’s tone from negative to positive, and then feeding digitized article text to a computer algorithm that flags words and phrases in the text accordingly as positive or negative before averaging the entire article.
Contrary to “zero-sum” notions, the modal article scores quite positively on the sentiment scale, and this finding is robust to a variety of dictionary choices. Even more interesting, however, is what happens when human coders are asked to evaluate the same articles. Text analysis has numerous advantages — it enables researchers to review many more documents than would be possible with the human eye alone, and generates numeric estimates on linguistic findings that can be tested for statistical significance. It is not a silver bullet, however, since an algorithm is only as good as its designers and may overlook nuance or context. Like many political scientists, computers have a very high IQ but very low EQ: even the most sophisticated algorithms struggle to detect sarcasm. To counter the possibility that the machine is missing the bigger picture, I asked a group of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers (all Americans and native English language speakers) to read the same articles holistically and provide their sense of the author’s sentiment on the same scale. Several different workers read each article and their responses were averaged.
While human readers also viewed the articles as generally positive, articles about China scored even more positively than articles about the Soviet Union or Russia, and the difference is statistically significant. At first glance, we might not be surprised — the United States and the Soviet Union were in a Cold War under a nuclear Sword of Damocles, and the U.S. and China are not. But since these are human readers in 2019, not 1969, this is in fact striking. Unfavorable China coverage abounds in recent years, including coverage of the current U.S.-China trade war, alleged Chinese cyber espionage, intense contestation over 5G standards, detainment of millions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and U.S. government accusations concerning the widespread theft of American scientific and intellectual property. At the very least, we might expect this rhetoric to be fresher in the minds of readers than events 50 years prior (when many of the readers hadn’t yet been born). That China space stories were rated significantly higher than Russian space stories despite tensions is an opportunity for political leaders.
Importantly, there are limitations to these preliminary findings. They cannot say definitively whether differences in interpretation between the computer and human readers on China were due to differences in the level of linguistic analysis, psychological priming, or random chance. Without comparisons to other national prestige projects like the Olympics or the arts, it cannot say whether space is truly unique as a bridge-builder. Finally, because only New York Times articles are used in the sample thus far, it cannot say with certainty whether that outlet gives disproportionately favorable treatment to China (doubtful as that is). My ongoing research delves deeper to investigate these issues, and the consistent positivity between different measures and across both Russia and China should boost confidence that the mystique space holds for each of us, personally, might aggregate across nations.
Americans take immeasurable pride in their national space accomplishments. But something about the mastery of space flight — and perhaps especially the quest for the moon — seems to know no national borders. The confusion and panic of the Sputnik era gradually gave way to formal U.S.-Russian space cooperation during the Cold War, culminating in the landmark Outer Space Treaty, numerous joint space station ventures, and ultimately, NASA’s total reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets to convey its astronauts into orbit. Yet Washington’s stance toward China’s peaceful space activity is counterintuitively more cautious, and in 2011, Congress passed a bill that bans NASA from cooperating with China on any joint scientific project.
On the one hand, space programs are really, really expensive. On the other, the evidence suggests that other states’ successes have the potential to bridge divides by building mutual respect, even when tensions run hot. Space cooperation is likely to be a popular policy: the media reports on it favorably; it resonates with the public; and it permits cost-sharing schemes that can help reduce strain on the budget. More importantly for national security hawks, closer scientific ties can help mollify fears about covert efforts to weaponize sensitive technologies. As the U.S. and China approach parity in space, joint collaboration could function like an inspection and verification system, better positioning each side to reassure the other that sensitive dual-use technologies aren’t being repurposed for malicious ends.
None of this is to suggest that the two countries’ interests are totally aligned. But at a time when the political ambivalence between Washington and Beijing is once again waxing rather than waning, cautious cooperation in space exploration may be a useful — and politically expedient — way to lift the tension.
Justin Key Canfil is a PhD Candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Political Science. He is currently a visiting scholar in the Department of Law at the London School of Economics, and an incoming Fulbright China Scholar. He specializes in the politics of US-China and US-Russia relations, emerging technologies, and international law. The research supporting these findings is scheduled to be presented in October 2019 at the International Security Studies Section (ISSS) of the International Studies Association (ISA) Conference in Denver, CO.