Why a China Space Race is a Good Thing

From the U. S. -China trade war,a controversial security law in Hong Kong,building in the South China Sea,to China’s global infrastructure projects,there is undeniably a Cold War-like battlefor influence on all fronts. And that includes space. We’re in a space race today,just as we were in the 1960sand the stakes are even higher. Although China hasn’t come closeto achieving what the U. S.
has, they’re catching up. Since 2018, China has launched
more rockets into orbitthan any other country. In 2019, they became the
first to land a roveron the far side of the moon. And in 2020, China
released the last satellitein their global navigation
satellite system,called Beidou, China’s
answer to the U. S. -made GPS. Like China’s big infrastructure
projects here on Earth,their goals are to get a
foothold in space technologythat will drive profit,make them independent
from U. S. technology,get an upper hand in military operationsand show superiority on the world stage. With Joe Biden in the White House,experts think space spending could slow,although the Democratic Party has statedthat it will continue the goalof sending Americans back to
the moon and beyond to Mars. We are launching humans to the moonfor the first time since 1972. And that might not be a bad thing. While a Cold War scenariohas dangerous political
and economic implications,a race to the cosmos,
like any good rivalry,could be a huge benefit for
space and other industries. If you think that the
U. S. -China competitionis going to be not just
a clash of strategies,but a clash of systems,it’s going to be a contest over whetherAmerican-style liberal democracyor Chinese-style authoritarian capitalismis best suited to the
demands of the 21st century,then it’s entirely possiblethat you could see the United Statesmake investments in
infrastructure and educationand technological innovationand basic researchthat it wouldn’t otherwise makeas a result of that competition. In 1957, the Soviet
Union shocked the worldby putting the first ever
satellite into space, Sputnik 1. There is real military
significance to these launchings. The satellite’s unanticipated successbrought on the American Sputnik crisis,a period of public fear and anxietyin Western nations about the perceivedtechnological gap
between the United Statesand Soviet Union. And so the National Defense
Education Act of 1957is passed in response to Sputnik. And it includes major investmentsin a variety of intellectual pursuitsthat were considered
critical to staying aheadin the Cold War. And so the rise of entire
industries like aerospace,the rise of entire regions
like Silicon Valleyor Orange County,
semiconductors, the Internet,a variety of other
things that we associatewith the rise of the information age,were originally conceivedas part of the military industrial complexin the 1950s and 1960s. And let me say that our
scientists and engineers,in offering their services to
the government in this field,have been generous, patriotic and prompt. And nowhere was government spendingmore apparent and highly publicizedas the space race of the time. In the Eisenhower years
and then Kennedy years,the U. S. started pouring
money into the space program. By, I think mid-1960s, the
U. S. was spending about4% of its total budget on space. It was the largest
percentage of the budgetspent on space in American history. And the intense rivalry allowedfor some of the biggest accomplishmentshumanity has ever seen. Including the first living
animal to enter space by Russia. The first man to enter space by Russia. And the first probe to land
on the moon, also Russia. And so that led to a huge
surge in U. S. spendingon the space program,which culminated in
1969 with Neil Armstrongand Buzz Aldrin stepping on the moon. The moon landing is considereda conclusion to the space race. And as U. S. -Soviet relations
improved, space spending waned. I think that one of the
reasons that the U. S. has not been as focused on spaceis because the end of the Cold War. Since the Apollo program,the NASA budget has
hovered around 0. 5% to 1%. But in the last few decades,the world has seen the
rise of a new power, China. While governed by an authoritarian regimelike the USSR was,China also has far more economic strengthand greater resources than
the Soviet Union ever did. And that worries the U. S. The president has already signed into lawthe largest NASA budgetsince the days of the Apollo program. There is very much an
ideological challenge. It’s sort of a contest
over which sort of system,democracy or authoritarian capitalism,will win the day in the 21st century. And I think what American officialsfear is that the Chinese
will not be contentto have second-tier status in a worldthat is led by the United
States and its allies. But space isn’t simply a showof technological strength like
it was during the Cold War. The space industry is now worthan estimated $345 billion. With technology that we use every daydepending on it, like GPS. China started launching an alternativeto the American system,
called Beidou in 2000. The recently completed versionis 20 centimeters more accurate than GPSby some estimates. China’s Beidou space programbrings prestige and practical benefits,the prestige from announcing their arrivalas a power in space similar
to the prestige which the USachieved from its first moon landing. The practical benefits, both
military and commercial. If you wanna target a missile
or a fast-food delivery,you need a GPS system. With its Beidou system,China has its own GPS capability in place. And so independence from U. S. influenceon that key part of infrastructurein the information economy. China even opened upthe private space industry in 2014in the hope of encouraging competitorsto the U. S. private space industry. iSpace was the first
private company in Chinato successfully launch
a rocket and satelliteinto orbit in 2019. And a company called Galaxy Spaceplans to launch 650
low-Earth orbit satellitessimilar to SpaceX’s Starlink,which will give better,
faster internet accessto people all over the world. But it’s not all about business. I think that for President Xi Jinping,this Chinese space program
is hugely important,not just for all the
practical applicationsbut also just for prestige. It’s important for
President Xi to show thatChina is a superpower. Superpowers have space programs. China will have to provethat they can perform the kind of missionsNASA has done and
possibly go even further. Like China’s recent moon rover, Chang’e-4. Although it was the third countryto land a rover on the moon,it was the first to land on
the far side of the moon. And China’s recently launched
Mars rover isn’t the first,but it’s the first orbiter
lander rover all in one mission. China even has a Voyager-like missionin its initial planning stagesthat will do a flyby of Neptuneand then out to explore
interstellar space. But more importantly, China will buildits own space station,which will serve as an essential toolfor tests and research in spaceand offer an alternative to the
International Space Station. When it comes to innovation,China will have some advantageswhen it comes to directing
the entire resourcesof a state or the entire
resources of a societytoward some particular
technological challenge,AI, for instance. But the cost of that is
there is less of an openeconomic and intellectual
ecosystem in Chinathan there is in the United States. There’s more inherent
dynamism in a societywhere you have truly
open information flowsand where innovation is as mucha bottom-up, as it is
a top-down phenomenon. And so that’s not to say
that the United Statesis destined to win the race for AI or 5Gor any other technology. I think there’s real danger
in a lot of these fields. But if the United States
puts forth the energyand puts forth the
investment that’s necessaryin these areas, there’s no inherent reasonthat it can’t succeed
because it is a democracy. And there are signsthat China’s space program is stumbling. In 2020, a long march 5B
rocket scattered debrisover Cote d’Ivoire, after an uncontrolledre-entry of the rocket’s core stage. This was the largest botch
of its kind in years. So the worry is that China
is just not that transparentwhen it comes to this sort of thing. So, was this just a one-off?Was this just something went wrong,or is this just an exampleof what might be happening going forward?The competition may prove to be too much. China is up against not
only a space programwith a long and decorated history. But one with more ambitious
missions than ever before. The U. S. is now trying to
beat China back to the moonto build a lunar base, harvest resourcesand then use it as a stepping
stone to get to Mars. This time when we go to the moon,we’re gonna go to stay with a purposeof learning how to live
and work on another worldso we can take that knowledge
and information to Mars. I think that the sense of urgencythat we’re hearing from
the Trump administrationabout the need to accelerate
the Artemis programto get to the moon by 2024,I think part of thatis because of the perceived
threat from China. So in that sense, I think
that having China asa more serious player in spacecould potentially be good for NASA,good for the American space program. Other NASA projects include a Mars missionequipped with a mini helicopterto fly on the surface of the red planet,another mini helicopter
mission planned for Titan,Saturn’s largest moon,and the launch of the
James Webb Space Telescope,an upgrade to the Hubble Space Telescopewhose photographs
changed our understandingof the universe as we know it. The ambitions of China and the U. S. may depend on how long
their rivalry continues. If history is any lesson,
the bigger the rivalry,the further the two space superpowersare likely to push themselves. The overall goal with
China’s space program,I think, is to match the United States. China does not want to be
subordinate to the U. S. on Earthand doesn’t want to be
subordinate to the U. S. in space. Right now, the plan is
to try to narrow the gap. And so if you are looking at thisfrom an American strategic perspective,the concern would be that
China may have a jumpin the areas of high-tech innovationthat will be most importantin terms of powering
innovation and productivityduring the 21st century. And that can perhaps be
turned into advantageson the battlefield. I should say that the
jury is really still outin terms of how effective China will beat mastering innovation in these areas. But if China continues to lackthe open informational ecosystemthat we’ve typically associatedwith success and innovation,there may still be significant obstaclesto maintaining the dynamism neededto spur innovation over the long run.

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