China is not going to be America's space partner anytime soon

China is not going to be America's space partner anytime soon
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At a recent panel discussion presented by the International Academy of Astronautics, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin gave some sage advice about how NASA’s Artemis program to return to the moon might be improved. Among other things, he suggested that China be invited as a partner to the undertaking, as part of what he called the “Space Exploration Alliance.”

The very next day, in a speech before this year’s International Astronautical Conference, Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceREAD: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry Top NSC aide puts Sondland at front lines of Ukraine campaign, speaking for Trump White House releases rough transcript of early Trump-Ukraine call minutes before impeachment hearing MORE seemed to disagree. According to Space.com, Pence presented a vision of an international space exploration effort that was wide of the one Aldrin proposed.

“To be clear, our vision is to be a leader amongst freedom-loving nations on the adventure into the great unknown," he said. "The United States of America will always be willing to work closely with like-minded, freedom-loving nations as we lead mankind into the final frontier."

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The qualifiers “like-minded” and “freedom-loving” would rule out a number of potential partners, but especially China. China is many things, but it certainly does not consider its interests aligned with the United States and does not love freedom, not even a little.

China also does not respect property rights, another aspect of exploring space that Pence mentioned. “As more nations gain the ability to explore space and develop places beyond Earth’s atmosphere, we must also ensure that we carry into space our shared commitment to freedom, the rule of law, and private property,” he said, according to Geek Wire,

China’s war against freedom has been well documented in the media. The Beijing government has been herding China’s Muslim Uighurs into reeducation camps to break their separate ethnic identity. China is also developing a so-called social credit system that will gather information on its citizens using the internet and surveillance cameras. Then the Chinese government will reward or punish its people based on how closely they adhere to officially approved behavior.

The people of Hong Kong have risen against these and other restrictions in almost daily demonstrations, many of which have turned violent. The police have reacted with extreme savagery. But the demonstrators have thus far been undaunted. So far, China has not loosed the People’s Liberation Army on Hong Kong, as it did 30 years ago at Tiananmen Square.

China’s abhorrence of freedom has extended to people and organizations that are not under its sovereign authority but who do want to do business with it. Chinese censors ensure that Hollywood movies and TV shows do not depict China in an unfavorable light. The controversy that occurred when the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team tweeted support for the Hong Kong demonstrators is another example. The controversy has severely affected the National Basketball Association and has shown the lengths that Beijing will go to control expressed opinion in the West.

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Pence’s implication is clear. A country must love freedom, the rule of law and property rights to be a suitable partner for America’s new effort to explore the heavens. Such countries include Canada, Japan and Australia. Despite America’s desire to go back to the moon and on to Mars, to paraphrase the line from Apollo, “in peace with all humankind,” China would be excluded.

Is the United States, therefore, in a de facto space race with China? Very likely, though only as long as NASA and its partners are allowed to run it. Considering China’s desire to dominate both the heavens and the Earth, a space race with an alliance of like-minded, freedom-loving nations and commercial companies would not be a bad thing.

The United States and its allies being in a space race with China speaks to one of the reasons NASA has been charged with getting astronauts back to the moon by 2024 and not by the previous date of 2028. The sooner that the American-led space alliance is on the moon, the more likely that America and her allies will be there to greet the Chinese if and when they arrive.

The longer that NASA’s return to the moon is delayed, either by technical problems or by partisan politics, the more likely that the reverse will be true. Americans walked on the moon 50 years ago, so if China wins a moon race, it would be a punch to the gut. American space policy should be predicated on avoiding that possibility at all costs.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.