China and the Next Space Race
The space race is on again.
In 2003, China sent its first astronauts into orbit around the earth. Since then, China has slowly and resolutely expanded its space program, increasing its clout as an aerospace powerhouse, and a challenger to the space programs of the U.S., Russia, and the European Union. According to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) annual report to Congress on Chinese military developments, China’s military space program “continues to mature rapidly.” Most recently, China made history by landing a craft on the dark side of the moon, a feat never before accomplished.
China has made enormous strides in aerospace technology and innovation by a combination of generous government funding, indigenous R&D, and industrial espionage which made a priority of aerospace technology. These advances pose a potential challenge to the United States’ space supremacy, and the moon landing may be the catalyst for a competition between the United States and China.
China is increasing its space program in an attempt to become an “aerospace superpower” and take command of the ultimate high ground with an eye to a future defeat of the United States. Thus, China’s desire to militarize space may sit uneasily by the space programs of Russia and the U.S. which, after a Cold War-inspired race to the moon, settled into a collaborative program through projects such as the International Space Station.
While the potential for space cooperation between the United States and China certainly exists, there is no doubt that China’s growing aerospace capabilities make it a potential threat to American sovereignty and other nations’ use of the space “commons.” China could soon surpass the U.S. in research and development spending, threaten to overtake America’s technical leadership. If America is to retain its primacy, it cannot delay while other nations innovate, especially when such innovation could prove to be a threat to national security.
How can America ensure its continued competitiveness in space?
The most effective way to maintain stability among nations and the free use of the space commons is to build up our space capabilities and implement a “peace through strength” strategy. To do so, the U.S. should reallocate money and cut wasteful spending to boost the share of the federal budget devoted to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). And the taxpayers are comfortable with the idea: a recent poll found that the vast majority of Americans would give NASA a big raise.
To ensure that the United States remains competitive with China, we must ensure that America’s launch resources are reliable and properly vetted. While the U.S. still needs to retain its competitive marketplace and all-of-the-above contracting strategy, it should follow a two-track approach of contracting with both proven launch partners and entrepreneurial space innovators.
NASA and the DoD should rely primarily on the proven Tier 1 launch partners such as United Launch Alliance and Orbital Sciences Corporation, which have a track record of lofting America’s most sensitive space cargo, including spy satellites. At the same time, the U.S. should encourage the nimble private-sector space ventures, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, in a “walk before you run” approach.
The entrepreneurial space ventures have much to commend them but are encountering turbulence that will test their managements’ focus.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will soon embark on the “divorce of the century” as he parts with a share of his $140 billion fortune. SpaceX, founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, is undergoing a significant downsizing, is promoting an unproven technology in its reusable rockets, and has a troubling reliance on government subsidies, which may have contributed to its being left out of the most recent Air Force contract to develop next-generation rockets.
In this case, the U.S. taxpayer can have his cake and eat it too, as the American marketplace has provided the DoD and NASA with proven Tier 1 partners and surging Tier 2 entrepreneurs, an approach that minimizes near-term risk and encourages long-term innovation as the U.S. faces China’s challenge.
James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).