The myth of the “new space race”

The Chang’e-4 lunar lander, seen by the Yutu-2 rover, after landing on the Moon in January. It landed on the Moon around the same time NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made the most distant flyby of a solar system object ever. (credit: CNSA)

“We want a new space race—space races are exciting,” declared SpaceX founder Elon Musk after the successful inaugural flight last year of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket since the Space Shuttle.

Hawks and headline writers think space races are exciting too, especially the “new space race” between China and the United States. That’s why they keep referring to it—even though it doesn’t exist.

Historic changes are indeed afoot in the space sector. Private crewed spaceflight is about to come of age. Mobile robotic spacecraft are being built to rendezvous with satellites to service them. Vast swarms of broadband satellites are set to make the Internet truly global for the first time, and increase the number of spacecraft in orbit tenfold. Back on Earth, satellite imagery fed through artificial intelligence algorithms promises powerful insights into all manner of human activity. Dozens of countries are active in space and the number is growing all the time. The tired trope of the superpower space race does little to make sense of all this.

What makes a race a race

A race requires speed and competition. The US and Chinese space programs have displayed neither characteristic for decades.

China is not racing the United States, because the single-minded obsession of the Communist Party’s top leadership is to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union. They are acutely sensitive to the dangers of ruinous competition for the sake of prestige, and understand that unsustainable fiscal spending poses a greater threat to national security than the US lead in space capabilities.

There is no sign that China is trying to outspend the United States. Its space budget is not publicly disclosed, but even the more generous estimates put it at less than one-quarter of what the US government spends on space.

Sustainability matters more to China. The Communist Party does not need to “beat” the US in order to impress the Chinese public and burnish its credentials as the champion of Chinese civilization. It just needs to demonstrate progress in achieving new milestones. Neither does China need to outclass the US in its military space capabilities. It just needs a convincing deterrent.

The US, meanwhile, is not racing because it is the leader by a wide margin and cannot therefore achieve a political consensus behind a need to rush. Not since the Space Shuttle has the US managed to stick to any truly revolutionary goal or program long enough to finish it.

Each US president from George W. Bush onwards has ushered in a major change in direction. The Trump Administration has already made two. Its latest, the Artemis program to land the first woman on the Moon by 2024, tries to recapture the urgency of the space race. It echoes Apollo’s unreasonably tight deadline, but without commensurate funding and the sense of impending defeat, it looks very unlikely to achieve it.

Calls to arms

A variant of the US-China space race story is the “call to arms” op-ed, which claims that the Chinese alone are racing, while a dopey America risks falling behind unless urgent action is taken.

The facts tell a different story: China’s space capabilities fall far short of the US’s except in a few very narrow areas.

The US has more than three times as many satellites in orbit as China: around 1,000 versus around 300. SpaceX alone has over 60 percent of the global commercial launch market; China’s share has not exceeded 10 percent since 2011 and has fallen to a negligible level in the past couple of years.

The US has more powerful rockets, able to lift heavier payloads to higher orbits: the reusable SpaceX Falcon Heavy can lift 64 tonnes into low Earth orbit; China’s most powerful rocket, the single-use Long March 5B, can lift just 25 tonnes, and remains out of service following a launch failure in 2017.

China does have the ability to send astronauts into space, which the US currently lacks, but it has done so just six times since its first crewed launch in 2003. The equivalent timespan up to the US Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011 saw more than 60. The US is poised to regain its crewed launch capability when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner enter service—enter late, yes, but Chinese programs suffer delays due to technical problems as often as US ones.

The first test flights of NASA’s new deep space launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, and SpaceX’s next-generation launch system are planned next year. There is justified skepticism over that timetable, but China’s deep space launcher, the Long March 9, is still on the drawing board, with a rough target for a first test flight of 2030 and ample precedent to suggest it will be later.

Both countries have deep-space crewed spacecraft in the pipeline, but the NASA-ESA Orion has already been built, whereas China’s unnamed prototype is the equivalent of Elon’s red Tesla: an empty shell that will be test-launched next year because China wants something expendable to put on the maiden launch of its improved Long March 5.

The space station China plans to start building next year will be in low Earth orbit, while NASA’s Gateway will be a similarly sized space station orbiting the Moon. Bigelow Aerospace has built innovative soft-bodied modules for a new Earth-orbiting space station, one of which has already been tested on the ISS and outperformed expectations so spectacularly that its lifespan has been extended from two years to 12.

China has grabbed headlines by deliberately targeting vacant niches, such as the Micius experimental quantum communication satellite in 2016, and the landing of humankind’s first rover on the far side of the Moon in January this year. But that same month, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sent back photographs of an object in the Kuiper Belt now known as Arrokoth, the furthest celestial object ever visited by a spacecraft. Next year China plans to launch a 250-kilogram rover to Mars for the first time; at the same time, NASA will launch a one-tonne rover, its fifth.

China’s incipient Internet satellite constellations number in the hundreds; SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper in the thousands. China’s private launcher startups are at least a decade behind their US counterparts, with just one successful orbital launch so far.

None of these comparisons belittle China’s achievements—the country is the world’s clear number two space power—but they do indicate that China is not poised to overtake the US anytime soon.

That’s why the calls to arms ring hollow. China still lags too far behind for the spectre of Chinese “victory” in a notional race to be convincing enough to panic US politicians into coughing up the money needed to bridge the gap in capabilities between what their country has now and mooted next steps such as settling the Moon or landing a person on Mars.

“Ambitious plans”

When current facts fall short of alarming, the hawks buttress their argument with reference to China’s long-term ambitions in space.

China is investing “aggressively,” we’re told, in space-based solar power technology that will allow Beijing to monopolize the world’s future energy supply. So far, though, this investment consists of a $14-million investment by a local government in a planned experiment involving balloons. Reports of this should, but generally do not, make reference to the larger, $17.5-million Northrop Grumman-Caltech Space Solar Power Initiative launched in 2015.

And the BeiDou satellite navigation system, China’s “rival” to GPS? It is not a rival but a backup, China’s hedge against the US denying China access to GPS in a time of conflict or political crisis. People are not forced to choose between the systems, but rather, increasingly use multi-constellation receivers that incorporate signals from both of them to improve accuracy and reliability. China cooperates with the US and its allies through the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Providers’ Forum, which promotes compatibility and interoperability between the two systems.

What about the longer term? Haven’t indiscreet Chinese leaders occasionally let slip glimpses of a long-term plan to dominate the solar system? Over the past few years, Chinese scientists and space officials have indeed expressed aspirations to mine asteroids and establish a presence on the Moon and beyond—but so have dozens of outspoken US engineers, space officials, and businesspeople over the decades. Concepts mooted by mid-level officials do not amount to policy, and still less do they assure funding, let alone open-ended funding on the scale of decades.

China’s leaders are happy for their juniors to feed the public grand visions of the distant future if these inspire patriotic commitment to the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation under the leadership of the Communist Party. It’s harmless. Nobody 50 years hence will hold anyone to account for failing to deliver on vague promises made today, particularly when those promises were never very realistic in the first place and no sacrifice was asked for the sake of pursuing them.

There is no evidence that the Communist Party leadership have committed to a concrete plan to colonize the solar system. Nor are they likely ever to make it a priority until the costs become clearer and the benefits less speculative.

Were China ever to demonstrate substantial progress towards mining the asteroids, settling the Moon, or beaming down solar power from space on a commercial scale, alarm bells would ring in Washington and views would quickly converge on the need to compete—not just for prestige this time, but for resources. That is when a new space race really would begin.

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