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An illustration of China’s Shenzhou spacecraft in orbit. (credit: CAST)

The coming space race with China

<< page 2: space race criticism

A different kind of space race

The second part of the criticism is that a space race between the United States and China would be undesirable and even disastrous. Jeff Foust expressed that view eloquently in The Space Review recently, suggesting that a space race with China would end pretty much as the one with the Soviet Union.

That race was arguably another battle, albeit a peaceful, nondestructive one, in the Cold War. Less than twelve years after the first shot of that battle, Sputnik, was fired, the US could claim victory by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. However, both the Soviet Union and the United States lost interest in manned lunar exploration shortly thereafter, and Apollo coasted to an end as both countries focused resources on other efforts.
While Apollo was a sprint, the new space race would be more like a marathon. The winner will be the first nation that becomes a spacefaring power.

However the unspoken assumption seems to be that the political factors that led to the demise of Apollo in the early 1970s would automatically be repeated in the 2010s or 2020s. That’s a supposition that is unconvincing, considering current political trends. In any case, people who propose a new space race with the Chinese have in mind something entirely different than what occurred in the 1960s. The new race would not be toward a single point goal like landing on the Moon, once accomplished to be forgotten. While Apollo was a sprint, the new space race would be more like a marathon. The winner will be the first nation that becomes a spacefaring power. That nation will own the future.

I suggested how such a race might be conducted in an article in Space Policy Digest several years ago.

We therefore have a model of a “space race” with China in the early years of the 21st Century. Instead of a scenario which features a Presidential pronouncement of “we choose to go to Mars” followed by flag and footsteps expedition that leads nowhere, it is a model that relies on America’s true strength. That strength does not reside in large, government bureaucracies but in the vigor of private, entrepreneurial institutions. So with this model in mind, how does America beat China in the space race? The first thing the United States would do is to refocus its national space effort to support the expansion of private business. The US would pass tax and other incentives to foster private space development. Technology research programs would be funded with a goal of lowering the cost of traveling to space and operating there. Instead of operating a government space line (also known as the space shuttle fleet) the US would acquire its launch services in the private sector.
Government sponsored expeditions to the Moon, Mars, or other destinations would not be undertaken to just facilitate prestige or “good science.” Such voyages would be conducted to test space technologies that could be used by private business. The purpose of a return to the Moon would be primarily to test things such as lunar oxygen extraction, lunar mining (including polar ice), and lunar based solar power stations such as been suggested by Dr. David Criswell.

In other words, not Apollo, but something much more. It is the free market approach many are looking for, buttressed by government sponsored research and development and core markets. The United States became the preeminent air power in the 20th century in just such a manner, with R&D under NASA’s predecessor NACA and by contracting out delivery of airmail to the private sector. Foust seemed to agree with that approach in his piece:

Those predicting such a race, and even hoping for one to break out, might be better served by helping craft policies and programs that would benefit the long-term development and use of space for defense, exploration, and commerce. That’s a race well worth winning.

No disagreement there. And, as I suggested three years ago, the stakes would be high indeed.

The winner of the next space race of the 21st Century will not be the nation that is the first to plant a flag on some distant world. The winner will be the first nation that transforms itself into a true space faring civilization, gaining for itself the economic and political benefits of being such a society. The United States cherishes its traditions of human freedom, belief in progress, and optimism for the future. China elevates the might of the state over the rights of the individual, crushes dissent, and seeks world domination. Which country will become the first space faring remains to be seen. The winner of that space race will shape the future of the entire human race, not just for the coming century, but for all time to come.