The politics of fear sells. In his successful 1960 campaign for president, then Senator John F. Kennedy seized on the dangers of the missile gap – a presumed Soviet superiority in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Kennedy exploited anxiety all the way to the White House. Yet the missile gap was a myth. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted as much to Kennedy in 1962, claiming “emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon” were responsible. McNamara then warned Kennedy, “There are still people of that kind in the Pentagon. I wouldn’t give them any foundation for creating another myth.”
Seventy years later, it is happening again. Pundits, politicians, and senior military officers alike now warn the United States is losing a space race to China. “We are absolutely in a strategic competition with China and space is a part of that,” Gen. David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, warned recently. “The fact, that in essence, on average, they are building and fielding and updating their space capabilities at twice the rate we are means that very soon, if we don’t start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us.”
Space alarmism makes great headlines. But the United States is not falling behind China in space – quite the contrary.
The United States remains the most advanced space power in the world. Of the more than 4,500 satellites in orbit today, the United States accounts for more than half of them, some 2,700 satellites and nearly seven times as many as the next competitor, China. True, the Chinese hold the record for the most space launches in 2021 – a total of 55 launches to the United States’ 51. But the number of launches only tells part of the story, because the United States has more powerful rockets, able to deliver more payloads – satellites, space probes, and spacecraft – into orbit.
China’s space funding has increased markedly in recent years, to $8.9 billion in 2020, but it still spent a mere fraction of the United States’ $48 billion. The U.S. also boasts a booming commercial space industry, with hundreds of startups joining leading firms like Blue Origin and SpaceX, and investors pouring billions of dollars into the U.S. space economy. Meanwhile, China’s private space industry lags behind American companies and, last year, funding trended in the wrong direction.
China’s space program has made significant advances in recent years, from completing its own global satellite navigation system and collecting lunar samples to landing a spacecraft on Mars and sending astronauts to its own space station. But these milestones should serve as a reality check: The United States is not falling behind in the space race, so much as China is steadily catching up after having started so far behind.
Likewise, China’s space ambitions are impressive, with plans to develop satellite mega-constellations and further explore the moon and deep space, but each of these Chinese space endeavors will need to first clear significant technical and other obstacles. For example, in June, Beijing released a roadmap for an International Lunar Research Station to be developed jointly with Russia. This plan requires China to field the Long March 9, a super heavy-lift rocket that has been in the research-and-development phase since 2011. The Chinese expect it to make its first test flight around 2030, but their troubles with other heavy rockets suggest that ambitious goal could well be pushed back. Even then, China landing its astronauts on the moon hardly constitutes a great victory. After all, the United States won that race back in 1969.
Still, the China space-race narrative has helped to stoke fears in Washington. The alarm associated with “falling behind” in the space race is invariably paired with calls for the U.S. to spend more on new space military capabilities, space exploration, and the commercial space industry. Steve Kwast, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, warns “there won’t be many prizes for second place” and urges Washington to act with greater “urgency and excitement.” But much like the missile gap of the late 1950s, such “calls to arms” encourage a massive militarization of space and risk misallocating limited defense resources.
The United States faces real and significant security threats in space, but efforts to develop an effective space strategy must begin with a more clear-eyed net assessment. The promotion of space cooperation with China would also help to dampen hype around a space race. While the Wolf Amendment limits U.S. government agencies, such as NASA, from cooperating with Chinese space agencies, the United States and China stand to mutually gain from collaboration for civil space exploration and science. Excluded from participation in the International Space Station or NASA’s Artemis Accords, the Chinese have had little choice but to develop their own space station and lunar base. These parallel space missions create a sense of a stark competition and fuel the space race narrative. Mutually beneficial scientific cooperation between the United States and China mitigates the risks of turning all China-U.S. relations into zero-sum competition. Let the missile gap myth be a cautionary tale.