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The Risks and Rewards of Growing US-China Space Rivalry

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Trans-Pacific View

The Risks and Rewards of Growing US-China Space Rivalry

Space competition is inevitable and offers huge gains to humanity.

The Risks and Rewards of Growing US-China Space Rivalry
Credit: NASA Goddard

Five decades after the Apollo 11 moon landing gave the U.S. victory over the Soviet Union in the space race, a new struggle for extraterrestrial supremacy is gaining momentum. This time, the challenger is China, reigniting fears about the potential militarization of space. But this off-planet rivalry also promises a commercial and technological boom with potentially huge benefits for humanity. Expansion to the stars — no matter by which country — should be welcomed, facilitated, and funded by the U.S. and other governments.

The pace of change is potentially enormous. It is worth recalling that less than nine years passed between U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s undertaking to put Americans on the moon and the Apollo 11 mission that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin there on July 20, 1969. Five further moon landings confirmed U.S. dominance of crewed spaceflight, raising the number of humans who have stood on the moon to 12.

Since the last crewed moon landing in 1972, Washington’s financial support for space exploration has plummeted. NASA’s budget, which peaked at 4.4 percent of the federal budget in 1966, was just a tenth of that level in 2017. But that is changing. Despite President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to NASA’s budget for the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, the U.S. Congress has reversed the trend, increasing the agency’s budget by 8 percent for 2018 and 3.5 percent for 2019. This year’s $21.5 billion allocation is the best in a decade, adjusting for inflation. 

Trump’s proposed cuts were aimed at overall budget control. But they were also incompatible with rising U.S. ambitions in space, which include commitments to put people on the moon and in a base in lunar orbit in the 2020s, and to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

A growing factor in the United States’ intensifying push is China. Beijing is quickly becoming a major space power, succeeding the Soviet Union as today’s rival to the U.S. in space. Last year, China launched more rockets into Earth’s orbit than any other country. In January, it made history by landing the robotic probe Chang’e 4 on the unexplored far side of the moon. Beijing has also announced plans to establish a robotic outpost on the moon by the end of the next decade.

Pessimists see only dangers in this growing rivalry. Clearly, they have a point — competition in space between Beijing and Washington carries existential risk. Mutual destruction will be possible not just through terrestrial nuclear war, but also through missiles launched from space. Militarization of space could make it difficult to leave Earth for peaceful purposes. Uncontrolled proliferation of satellites could create space debris that might threaten life on Earth. 

But competition over space exploration can also benefit humankind, including accelerating the enormous potential for more and better telecommunications networks, global positioning systems and spinoff technologies. As space infrastructure develops to support a more permanent human presence off-planet, we could see transformational gains — notably the opportunity to harvest virtually limitless energy through space-based solar power stations.

There are also less obvious existential benefits. The more we expand into space, the more sustainably we can live on Earth. Our understanding of humanity’s impact on the planetary system — and our ability (though not necessarily our willingness) to change our behavior — depends on the insights we gain from Earth-observing satellites. Moving off-planet also improves prospects for long-term survival of the human race in event of a cataclysmic disaster on Earth. 

Much of the renewed surge in U.S. space exploration spending will come from the private sector. Dozens of companies are already competing to provide everything from launch vehicles to extraterrestrial landing craft, including established aviation giants like Boeing and Northrop Grumman, as well as newer competitors such as SpaceX, founded by the PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk. 

But exploring space is expensive. Returns are not usually obvious or immediate, and return on capital may be long-delayed or indirect. This means that private companies can work profitably in space only within frameworks established by government initiatives.

Today, thousands of satellites orbiting Earth provide lucrative services, encouraging companies to invest in related infrastructure such as reusable rockets and satellite-provided internet. But all these developments owe their existence to the 1960s space race. Government ambitions spurred technological development, and in so doing helped to bring down the costs of satellites, making them commercially feasible.

This process can be repeated outside Earth’s orbit, with the first new commercialized frontier likely to emerge as Washington and Beijing offer contracts to build their moon bases. With billions of dollars of government money on the line, companies will have strong incentives to create efficient ways to transport infrastructure, house astronauts, and utilize lunar resources. Firms with appropriate technology and resources should be moving now to align with NASA’s agenda. Bigelow Aerospace, for instance, which specializes in building modular inflatable habitats, is well-placed to support the planned space station in lunar orbit.

China’s ambitions present a challenge that Washington dare not ignore. It should step up space funding immediately, matching NASA’s resources to the federal government’s expansive rhetoric. As it has done to spur SpaceX’s growth, NASA should use larger budgets to provide assurance of use — private industry will invest its money to design new technologies if it knows there will be a buyer. In the 1960s, this kind of government commitment got the U.S. into orbit. This time, it might get the whole of humankind much further.

Nicholas Borroz is a director at the Washington-based consultancy platform GlobalWonks and a visiting fellow at Thammasat University’s Institute of East Asian Studies.