Under the blazing sun, a Chinese rocket streaks upward and away from its launchpad in the Gobi Desert. The three men aboard were part of the Chinese space program’s first manned flight in over five years. The launch, which took place in June, marked a monumental step forward for Beijing’s greater deep-space goals. And for China, the trip was only the latest in a series of nearly a dozen planned flights in the next two years.
The Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts, aboard the Long March-2F rocket were headed to China’s Tiangong Space Station, a new and exciting project for the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA). Tiangong is Beijing’s response to the 2011 Wolf Amendment, a law passed by the U.S. Congress that prohibits NASA from using government funds to engage in direct, bilateral cooperation with the Chinese government and China-affiliated organizations. Prior to the decision, Beijing expressed interest in joining the International Space Station, the low-earth orbit space station collaboratively built and manned by the United States, Russia, Japan, the European Union and Canada.
Without permission to join the ISS as a partner organization, CMSA revived its plans for a Chinese space station from the 1990s, launching the main module in May 2021. The June launch was the first of nearly a dozen planned launches in the next few months. Auxiliary stations are due to be launched in 2022 and complete the space station, which is expected to have a lifespan of 15 years. CMSA announced its intention to keep Tiangong, known as the ‘Heavenly Palace,’ continuously inhabited with three taikonauts throughout its operational life.
The United States slammed the airlock to the ISS in Beijing’s face over a decade ago, and yet the launch of Tiangong and manned flights from CMSA have been met with suspicion and confusion in U.S. policy circles. Despite China’s apparent success, the United States has reason to stay hopeful about American competitiveness in space.
NASA has ambitious plans to return to the moon in the next five years and long-term goals to send manned missions to Mars within the decade. Additionally, private industry space exploration, like recent launches by billionaires Jeff Beezos and Richard Bronson, represents a new chapter for American spaceflight innovation.
The 21st-century space race is here, and in the face of Chinese advances, the United States must embrace the benefits of technological competition.
China’s space program has shown remarkable progress in just a few short years. China landed the first uncrewed spacecraft on the far side of the moon in 2019 and in 2021, became only the second country, after the United States, to land a rover on Mars.
U.S. lawmakers are concerned, especially after the announcement from Russia and China that revealed a joint project to construct a lunar base. In comparison, NASA has struggled to convince congressional leaders for more funding, even as anxiety surrounding China’s deep-space ambitions grows. NASA has official plans to return to the moon with manned missions as part of the upcoming Artemis program in 2024 (moved up from the original plan of 2028). Part of this plan involves securing more funding, and Bill Nelson, President Joe Biden’s new NASA administrator, understands that the key to that strategy is casting China as a competitor. Given the recent successes of Chinese launches, this shouldn’t be an issue for Nelson.
There are valid reasons for American policymakers to be concerned about China’s celestial ambitions. Military strategists rightly point out the inherent risks posed by a geopolitical adversary occupying what has come to be seen as the “highest possible ground,” and despite CMSA’s touted status as a civilian space program, the reality is that CMSA is just as involved with military tech as it is with civilians. Given this, the possibility for genuine cooperation between Washington and Beijing seems ever-shrinking.
But, this reality does not spell disaster and inevitable conflict in space. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were on a similar path before new geopolitical realities changed priorities for aerospace programs. The competitive atmosphere of the Cold War pushed Washington to take risks and fund scientific research and development like never before, ushering in a host of new technologies and advancements.
For NASA to stay competitive against a well-funded program and keep its competitive edge, new strategies need to be utilized to ensure future endeavors meet their target timelines. American innovation in the private space industry is the source of much excitement, and NASA has taken notice. Partnerships between the federal agency and private sector actors open up new opportunities and give NASA some much-needed flexibility.
Earlier this month, NASA awarded $146 million to five aerospace companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, to develop moon lander technology for future missions. Artemis, launched in 2017, aims to return Americans, including the first female moonwalker, to the moon by 2024. And a series of manned and unmanned missions in coming years are prepping NASA for new moon missions — nearly 50 years after American astronauts last landed on the lunar surface.
The United States remains at the forefront of space exploration, but this lead is shrinking as China pours resources into its own space program.
The establishment of the Tiangong space station represents a significant step for the CMSA but should not be blown out of proportion. Exciting new private-public partnerships between NASA and companies at the forefront of new space technology are promising in their own right and upcoming launches as part of the Artemis program speak to the strength of the American space program.
The 21st-century space race should be seen not as a preordained loss for American innovation, but rather as an opportunity to reemphasize scientific advancement and inspire a new generation of Americans.