Thu, Jan 10, 2019 - Page 9 News List

No, China is not winning
the ‘space race’

China’s deep pockets, laser focus and methodical approach cannot yet compete with the US’ decades of experience and burgeoning private sector

By Adam Minter  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Illustration: Mountain People

On Wednesday last week, China successfully landed its Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the moon’s far side — an impressive technological accomplishment that speaks to China’s emergence as a major space power.

Understandably, some Chinese scientists are taking a victory lap, with one going so far as to gloat to the New York Times that: “We Chinese people have done something that the Americans have not dared try.”

That cockiness speaks to the spirit of great-power competition animating the Chinese space program. China is open about the fact that it is not merely looking to expand human knowledge and boundaries; it is hoping to supplant the US as the 21st century’s dominant space power.

If this were still the 1960s, when the US and Soviet space agencies fiercely competed against one another, China’s deep pockets, focus and methodical approach to conquering the heavens might indeed win the day.

However, the truth is, thanks to the development of a dynamic, fast-moving US commercial space industry, China’s almost certain to be a runner-up for decades to come.

That does not mean the People’s Republic of China is not making progress in its attempts to colonize the moon and turn it into the outer space equivalent of its South China Sea outposts — an avowed goal of Ye Peijian (葉培建), head of China’s lunar program.

China is to launch a mission to bring back samples from the moon later this year. Over the next decade, it plans to launch a space station, a Mars probe, asteroid missions and a Jupiter probe, while continuing to develop reusable rockets and other vehicles that would enhance its access to space. A human mission to the moon is targeted for 2030 and a permanent colony by the middle of the century.

By contrast, NASA’s own ambitions seem limited. US astronauts have not left low-Earth orbit since the last Apollo moon landing in 1972, while the US lost the ability to fly to the taxpayer-funded International Space Station with the retirement of the space shuttle.

Too often, new US presidents have shifted space priorities, forcing NASA to cancel or reconfigure expensive missions that have been years in the planning. Worse, many members of US Congress still view NASA as a tool to deliver wasteful, pork-barrel spending to politically connected constituencies.

However, that hardly describes the entirety of the US space program. Since the mid-2000s, when Congress authorized the agency to begin cultivating public-private partnerships, NASA’s most important role has been as a seed investor and adviser to private space companies.

While Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp — or SpaceX — receives the bulk of attention, the commercial space industry now comprises dozens of firms in fields ranging from small satellites to lunar exploration.

The results have been spectacular: By NASA’s own estimates, the cost of SpaceX developing its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket was less than 10 percent of what it would have cost if NASA had done it.

NASA’s backing is paying dividends elsewhere, too. In coming weeks, SpaceX is to launch uncrewed orbital test flights of its Crew Dragon spacecraft — a capsule designed to deliver US astronauts to the International Space Station.

At least two other companies are looking to launch commercial space stations.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is planning an uncrewed moon landing by 2023 (in line with NASA’s lunar goals). Meanwhile, SpaceX is developing a larger rocket that is scheduled to take tourists around the moon that same year. And NASA, keen to encourage more lunar exploration, has announced a partnership with nine companies developing lunar landers, with the first missions set to launch as early as this year.

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