Will Biden’s NASA win the space race with China?
At NASA Administrator Bill Nelson’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and several of her colleagues asked for his total commitment to tackling the pressing threat of China’s space policy. That speaks volumes about where America stands in the new space race with China.
For years, China’s government has stolen countless innovations in an attempt to close the gap in military superiority between itself and the United States. Much of this theft has revolved around space technology, which China sees as a critical component of future warfighting.
China’s advances in space are decades in the making. China has made significant strides, including becoming the first country to successfully land a rover on the dark side of the moon and advancing plans to create a joint moon base with Russia. Because of China’s determination to establish bases on the moon, many experts reasonably fear that China’s efforts soon will surpass the United States. Former Lt. Col. Pete Garretson told Politico, “We don’t have this national program that is able to beat the Chinese” — in part because China has a “really, really clever” strategy.
America does still lead in space, and the development of the U.S. Space Force is an important step, but the concern expressed by some members of Congress at Nelson’s confirmation hearing highlights the troubling signs that NASA may be tilting off the mark. For example, committee Chairwoman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) asked Nelson why, days before the hearing, NASA decided to hand off the U.S. moon project to a single contractor, one that has had several vehicle failures and has violated regulations.
This is a significant and worrisome break from NASA precedent. The agency typically hands out agreements to multiple vendors to ensure efficiency, low costs and on-time deliveries. This time, though, NASA put all its faith in the SpaceX Starship prototype that unfortunately has blown up four times in five months.
Even in the era of trillion-dollar spending, this does not appear to be a wise use of $2.89 billion. NASA’s lack of quality control mechanisms for this moon landing is damaging not only to the efforts of the United States to maintain a viable and safe enterprise but also because space is an arena of great power competition. U.S. setbacks or failures will ultimately empower China’s communist regime, emboldening its aggressive space strategy that was created to strengthen China’s military prowess, harm the interests of the United States, and establish a permanent Chinese presence on the moon and, in time, Mars. This could allow China to set its own norms and rules for space exploration.
It was encouraging, however, when Congress asked Nelson if he would commit to ensuring the resiliency of the human lander program — ostensibly, through operationalizing back-up vehicles, which would ensure the United States does not fall behind China in the event of setbacks — and he indicated that he would, stating that “competition is always good.”
While that is positive, it is important to maintain that spirit because, unlike the first symbolic race to the moon with the Soviet Union, the one with China is significantly different. This time, the winning nation intends to stay once they land. The winner will get to stake a claim to the moon’s untapped minerals and other resources, which will be necessary for establishing a permanent base for scientific research and future missions to Mars. Allowing an adversarial power such as China to gain that position is unquestionably not in the interests of the United States.
Most members of Congress understand what’s at stake, which is why a moon landing has become the priority of U.S. space policy. The U.S. plans an ambitious moon landing date of 2024 to stay ahead of China’s curve. Thus, it would be a tremendous loss to the standing of the United States if NASA effectively permits its careful deliberations and planning to fail because it did not ensure secure and reliable vehicles to realize its objectives.
The United States can land on the moon before China and secure a base for future generations and our allies. This will happen only if President Biden’s new NASA head proceeds with equal measures of ambition and determination to realize U.S. strategic goals in space, scientific aims, and alacrity to the China threat.
Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.
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