China's Giant Leap Into a New Space Race

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  • The space race developing between China and the United States will differ significantly from the Cold War original.
  • China's space program is as commercially oriented as NASA's, giving the new space race an economic dimension the old one lacked.
  • The military dimensions of the Sino-American space race also are shaping up differently, with a focus on protecting and threatening satellite communication networks rather than ICBMs. But this could quickly change.

On Jan. 3, the China National Space Administration landed a lunar exploration vehicle on the far side of the moon. It was a remarkable technical achievement, possible only because China had already managed to put a relay satellite into a halo orbit some 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) beyond the moon, from which it can bounce signals from Earth down to the exploration vehicle (and vice versa), getting around the problem that the moon blocks direct communications with its far side.

China was a latecomer to outer space, launching its first satellite only in 1970, 13 years after the Soviet Union's Sputnik, and its first taikonaut in 2003, 42 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. It also operates on the cheap, spending less than one-fifth as much on its programs as the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, China is now without a doubt the world's second-greatest space power, and strategists are increasingly talking about a second space race, paralleling the original race between the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the 1980s. Yet the harder we look at the details, the less the Sino-American competition looks like the Soviet-American competition of a half-century ago.


Right from Nikita Khrushchev's "We will bury you!" threat to Western ambassadors in Moscow in 1956, the Soviet-American space race was about prestige. In reality, both space programs initially depended heavily on former Nazi scientists ("Our Germans are better than their Germans," Khrushchev boasts in the film version of Tom Wolfe's novel The Right Stuff), but the Soviets' success in launching the first satellite and putting the first man into orbit were stunning propaganda coups. Only the American triumph of landing men on the moon in 1969, watched live on television by 530 million people around the world, surpassed it.

In some ways, the 2010s Sino-American rivalry looks similar. The China Daily, a Chinese government publication, regularly pronounces that the nation's successes in space show that China is catching up with Western science and technology. However, there is one big difference: While Khrushchev and his successors insisted that Soviet space exploration showed that communism was a superior system to capitalism, Beijing's leaders have consistently interpreted their own space program as evidence for the strength of their national culture, not for the strength of socialism. Taikonauts, Xi Jinping said at the launch of the Shenzhou 10 mission in 2013, "carry the space dream of the Chinese nation and represent the lofty aspirations of the Chinese people."

While the Soviets liked to name their spacecraft after socialist concepts (Sputnik meant "fellow traveler" and Soyuz "union"), China prefers names from its own mythology, full of cultural resonance. Chang'e 4, the lunar exploration vehicle that landed on the moon last week, is named after a goddess said to have drunk an elixir of immortality, flown to the moon and built a palace there. Everything seems designed to drive home the Chineseness of the effort. On board Chang'e 4 are the cocoons of silkworms, one of the icons of Chinese culture (although, admittedly, the spacecraft also took along seeds for potatoes, the quintessential New World crop).

Following in the footsteps of the goddess Chang'e, the Chinese space agency announced in a video released April 24, China's national "Space Day," that "China's dream of residing in a lunar palace will soon become a reality." Wu Weiren, the project's chief designer, predicts that the dream will be fulfilled by 2030, and student volunteers are already practicing in a replica lunar palace here on Earth, living off mealworms and — like the hero of Andy Weir's science fiction novel The Martian — crops fertilized with their own manure. Even the relay satellite that made last week's moon landing possible was named Queqiao, "magpie bridge," after a story that magpies flocked together once each year to make a bridge across the Milky Way, reuniting separated lovers. It is all a far cry from the Soviet equation of space exploration with the triumph of the proletariat. We have to conclude that in outer space as well as here on Earth, nationalism now trumped trumps socialism and capitalism in great-power competitions.

Exploiting Spinoff Technologies

We have to conclude that in outer space as well as here on Earth, nationalism now trumped socialism and capitalism in great-power competitions.

The economic dimension of the Second Space Race differs even more from that of the original version. The Soviet Union never found, or frankly even looked for, positive economic externalities from its space program. NASA, by contrast, energetically encouraged private-sector contributions to and exploitation of the breakthroughs it made. NASA was consuming 4 percent of the federal budget by the late 1960s, and polls consistently found that half of the American population didn't want to fund the Apollo program. But in the long run, the 6,300 inventions that came directly out of the program more than paid for the investment. Without the Apollo program, personal computing, global positioning systems and a string of other technologies that we now take for granted would lag years or decades behind where they are now.

What makes the space race in the 2010s so very different is that China's program is now every bit as commercially oriented as NASA's. It has already spun off an alternative to the older American, Russian and European satellite-based global positioning systems. This now generates annual revenues above $30 billion, and exactly one week before Chang'e 4 landed on the far side of the moon, the latest version — BeiDou-3 — went online, claiming to offer 10 times the accuracy of the American version.

China's aspirations, though, are much grander. According to Lt. Gen. Zhang Yulin of the Central Military Commission, "The earth-moon space will be strategically important for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." Zhang revealed that Chinese engineers had been thinking about space-based solar power generation since the early 1990s. Academics from the China Academy of Space Technology say that by 2035 they will build a solar power station between Earth and the moon, with 100 megawatts capacity. The station will cover a square kilometer and will weigh in at 10,000 tonnes (25 times the weight of the International Space Station, currently the biggest human-made object in space). By 2050, they expect the station to be commercially active, revolutionizing global energy capture. Little about the Soviet space program ever posed such a threat to the United States' strategic position as this.

The Military Dimension

There was, however, one way in which the Soviet space program posed an even greater existential threat to the United States: its military dimension. The Soviet and American space programs were both intimately linked to the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially kill tens of millions of enemy civilians at a few minutes' notice. In 1957, Sputnik showed that the Soviets had mastered such rockets, but in 1959 the United States caught up. In 1960, both sides learned how to launch missiles from submarines, effectively making them almost invulnerable to destruction in a surprise attack. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, American warheads still outnumbered Soviet warheads nine to one. The Department of Defense predicted that an American first strike would kill 100 million people, probably bringing down the Soviet Union, but it also recognized that a Soviet counterstrike against U.S. and allied cities, which were much bigger than Soviet population centers, would kill 75 million Americans and 115 million Europeans. This would bring down the rest of the Northern Hemisphere too. The space race had produced the age of mutual assured destruction.

The military dimensions of the second space race currently look very different. The number of nuclear warheads in the world has fallen by an order of magnitude since the mid-1980s, and at the moment, world politics make a major nuclear war an unlikely prospect. For the United States, China and Russia alike, the main military interest of outer space seems to lie in protecting their own and threatening each other's satellite communication networks, not firing off ICBMs. The U.S. Space Command, reestablished as an independent Unified Combatant Command at the end of 2018, certainly presents this as its primary concern. China had generated outrage in 2007 when it showed that, like Russia and the United States, it could use missiles to shoot down satellites. The successful interception added yet more debris to the estimated 500,000 fragments already orbiting the planet roughly 500 miles (800 kilometers) above its surface, a popular elevation for imaging, national security and communication satellites. China reacted in 2016 by launching "Roaming Dragon," a craft with a robotic arm, ostensibly designed to pluck offending fragments of debris from of the sky — but some security analysts fear that its real purpose is to grab American satellites rather than blowing them apart and generating debris that makes low orbits so dangerous for everyone.

Space war 2010s-style has little in common with the 1980s version. But that might yet change, especially if policymakers suspect that hopes (or fears) that the American Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system can shoot down incoming ICBMs are correct. Tests in 2018 suggested that, under ideal conditions, interceptor missiles had a "single shot probability of kill" of 56 percent, meaning that if four interceptors could be fired at each ICBM, 97 percent of the attacking rockets would be stopped. Even 3 percent getting through would of course mean millions of deaths, but the United States would live to fight another day — meaning that if the hype is true, GMD could yet undo mutual assured destruction, pushing the second space race in a terrifying new direction.

Chang'e 4 marks a giant leap, both for science and for China's challenge to American global leadership. However, no one should assume that a new Sino-American space race will simply be a rerun of the original Soviet-American space race. Whether we think in terms of prestige, economics or warfare, the situation has changed out of all recognition since the 1980s.

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He is currently Stanford University's Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and serves on the faculty of the Stanford Archaeology Center. He has published twelve books and has directed excavations in Greece and Italy. Dr. Morris' bestsellers include Why the West Rules -- for Now (2010) and War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots (2014). His most recent book is Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, released in 2015 by Princeton University Press. He received his doctorate from Cambridge University.

This article appeared originally at Stratfor Worldview.

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