Fly Me to the Moon

Is it a space race if only one side is running? China has an ambitious space program with both military and civil components, and the primary goal of its civil program is political to demonstrate China’s great power status to its citizens, its neighbors, and to the United States.

Let’s handicap the participants. In unmanned spaceflight and robotic planetary exploration, no other country can match the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) New Horizons spacecraft did a flyby of Ultima Thule, a tiny planetoid that is four billion miles from earth, and this was after a flyby of Pluto. Two NASA spacecrafts have left the solar system to enter interplanetary space, the only man-made objects to have done so. NASA operates multiple robot explorers on Mars. These are unparalleled achievements, and while landing a robot on the dark side of the moon is impressive, it does not compare. Europe has a smaller number of unmanned exploration programs, as do China, India, and Russia, but the bulk of activity and data comes from U.S. missions.

A military comparison is more complex, in part because much of the comparison is classified. The United States is far more reliant than China on space for military advantage; armed conflict with China would see Chinese efforts to disrupt, damage, or destroy U.S. military spacecraft and the United States could retaliate in kind. The United States still has advantages, but with China and other hostile nations building anti-satellite capabilities, the risk to this advantage is greater than many would like. Renaming and reorganizing U.S. military space efforts will not change this.

U.S. earth observation programs are robust, despite occasional political aversion to climate science, but planetary monitoring (for weather and climate change and natural disasters) is something best seen as done in partnership with the European Space Agency, Japan, and other European space nations. Many nations now have earth remote sensing platforms with varying capabilities. Whoever provides Americans with news about the weather, they are channeling for NASA and the National Oceans and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) remote sensing satellite programs, and these earth science space programs are not really a competition, but the U.S. program remains one of the most sophisticated in the world.

If there is a dark spot on this picture, it is in human spaceflight. China can put people in space, as can Russia, but the United States cannot. In fact, the landing on the moon should be seen as another step toward China’s goal of landing humans on the Moon. The Colombia disaster made NASA risk-averse, slowing the development of manned programs to a crawl. The previous administration’s decision to rely on commercial space programs for human flight has not yet born fruit, and these efforts so far have repeated what U.S. space programs did in the 1950s. The promised flight to Mars was always a fantasy. Right now, China has the most promising human spaceflight program.

Despite various promises to rebuild Russia’s space program, it is in a slow decline. Russia successfully restored its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) navigation system a few years ago, but few new initiatives have gone much past the public announcement phase. A few other nations have space programs, but they are unremarkable.

This assessment discounts the International Space Station. It is impressive for NASA and its partners to have maintained a continuous presence in space (albeit in low earth orbit, roughly 250 miles above the surface and with dependence on Russian spacecraft for crewing), but the space station has become a sort of exploratory backwater. China would like to have its own space station but has been unable to sustain a continuous presence. Russia has said it separates its section of the International Space Station to form the core of a new entirely Russian space station, but this has not gone much beyond the planning phase.

In three out of four areas of space activity, the United States maintains an advantage in any “race.” It is only in manned flight, with its political symbolism, that China is a competitor and may surpass us. As with so many areas of competition between China and the United States, it is not that China is speeding up but that the United States is slowing down, hobbled by its fractious politics (China has not had a government shutdown in decades). China’s leaders see space programs as a way to speed recognition of China as a great power equal (and perhaps superior) to the United States. U.S. space technology is superior, our robotic programs are unmatched, but our civil space programs are disconnected from national politics and a strategic framework. Perhaps this will change when China lands explorers on the moon. A manned presence on the moon is an achievable goal for the United States and, soon, for China. But if it is a race, and if nothing changes, we can predict who will get to the Moon’s surface first.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program