Beyond the Atmosphere: U.S.-China Progress in the New Space Race
By: Andrew J. Harding
The following article is the foundation for our Youth Exposition on US-China Space Policy. More information on the event can be found here.
Competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (China) is, quite literally, out of this world. Although the United States developed a world-leading space program during the Cold War, China’s own program has rapidly gained in both power and prestige.
Unlike the Cold War, however, the United States is at risk of losing the “new” space race to its competitor. In fact, at this year’s State of the Space Industrial Base conference, more than 350 representatives from industry, academic, government, and investment communities concluded that China is set to overtake the United States as the world’s dominant space power as early as 2032. As China’s arsenal of space capabilities grows, the United States remains ill-prepared to keep pace.
In a January 2022 white paper, Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed that it is China's “eternal dream” to “explore the vast cosmos” and “build China into a space power.” In the past eight years, China has completed and is operating its BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, entered into the final step of the three-step “orbit, land, and return” lunar exploration program, began building its own space station—set to be completed by 2035, and has an active rover on Mars.
On September 9, 2022, Chinese scientists announced the discovery of a new lunar mineral, named Changesite-(Y). The discovery is the sixth new lunar mineral discovered by humanity, making China the third country to discover a lunar mineral—behind the United States and the former Soviet Union. China now has about 95,000 space-related enterprises and will have more than 60 space launches in 2022. Around 2030, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is set to send Chinese astronauts to the Moon.
Militarily, China is also making impressive strides. The People’s Liberation Army’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), China’s newest military branch, is responsible for China’s militarization of space. In 2019, China launched dozens of BeiDou-3 and Tianlian-2 satellites capable of collecting and distributing information. Between 2010 and 2016, China has had satellites bump into each other, measure maneuvers, and grab other satellites with robotic arms. With direct energy, in 2006, China used a laser to paint, without inflicting damage, a U.S. reconnaissance satellite.
With space becoming an increasingly important military realm, Chinese domination would pose a significant security threat to the United States. Not only would China be able to disrupt satellites, GPS navigation, and advanced telecommunications, but it would also grant both strategic and tactical advantages during possible conflict. In this sense, Chinese space superiority could play a significant role in deterring and even countering American military operations. Assuming space’s economic prospects grow, controlling who or what can travel outside Earth’s atmosphere with coercive capabilities offers China enormous influence over the United States.
The United States is struggling to match China’s rate of progress. Despite the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s and Space Force’s (NASA) combined budgets of almost $50 billion—compared to China’s official funding of $10.29 billion for its space programs, notable breakthroughs have slowed. Although this may be an effect of previous successes, such as the last landing of humans on the moon in 1972, the United States would have surely hoped to have achieved more prolific technological and historical successes in 50 years.
NASA’s Artemis mission is the United States' most recent attempt at getting back on the moon. With the goal of establishing the “first long-term presence on the moon” guided by “American leadership in exploration,” NASA is collaborating with international governments and companies to both send astronauts for long-term missions on the moon and, eventually, to Mars. A bold project over half a decade in the making, the Artemis project would be a milestone in human history, if successful.
The United States’ government’s sluggish pace, however, has opened the door for private companies to meet demand. Companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, have been launching satellites and supporting military interests. For example, in 2022, SpaceX has launched 37 orbital launches and contributed to the global space sector that reached $469 billion in 2021. Another example includes Amazon launching two internet satellites, in 2022, with ABL Space Systems—a start-up company focusing on smaller payloads with portable ground systems. The private sector’s collaboration with the government will likely improve efficiency and spur healthy competition, though disputes over how to balance private and public interests can quickly arise.
The establishment of the United States Space Force was designed for the United States to further adapt to future realms of warfare. It will take time, however, for the Space Force to find its groove as the world’s only independent space force. Although China does not have a military branch exclusively dedicated to space, the SSF has had nearly four additional years to coordinate logistics and develop both strategic and tactical capabilities.
The United States has not faced a space competitor like China since the Soviet Union. Undoubtedly, the United States has experienced greater historical success in its space programs, and China has yet to hit milestones that the United States hit nearly half a century ago.
The gap between the two programs, however, is shrinking. The Cold War is over, but a new space race is here. From economic prospects to military superiority, the stakes could not be higher. This time, the United States may not come out on top.