Is the United States in a space race against China?
Headlines proclaim the rise of a new ‘space race’ between the United States and China have become mainstream in news coverage after many exciting launches in recent years. Experts have pointed the finger at China rapid progress in space as evidence of an emerging landscape where China is directly in competition with the United States for supremacy.
China’s plan to land astronauts on the moon
This idea of a space race between China and the United States sounds compelling given the larger narrative of China’s rise, but how accurate is it? As a teacher who studies space and international relations, my research aims to quantify the power and capabilities of different nations in space. When I look at various capabilities, the data paints a much more complex picture than a tight space race between the United States and China. At least for now, reality looks more like what I call complex hegemony…one state, the United States, is still dominant in key spatial capabilitiesand this lead is further amplified by a strong network of partners.
A clear leader makes racing boring
Calling the current situation a race implies that the United States and China have roughly equal capabilities in space. But in several key areas, the United States is far ahead of not just China, but all other spacefaring nations combined.
Starting with spending: in 2021, the US space budget was around US$59.8 billion. China has invested heavily in space and rocket technology over the past decade and has doubled its spending over the past five years. But with an estimated budget of $16.18 billion in 2021, it still spends less than a third of the US budget.
The United States also leads in the number of active satellites. Currently there is 5,465 operational satellites in total in orbit around the Earth. The United States operates 3,433, or 63% of them. In contrast, China has 541.
Similarly, the United States has more active spaceports than China. With seven operational launch sites at home and abroad and at least 13 additional spaceports in development, the United States has more options for launching payloads into various orbits. In contrast, China has only four operational spaceports with two more plannedall located on its own territory.
Parity with nuance
While the United States may have a clear advantage over China in many areas of space, in some measures the differences between the two countries are more nuanced.
In 2021, for example, China attempted 55 orbital launches, four more than the 51 Americans. The total numbers may be similar, but the rockets carried very different payloads into orbit. The vast majority – 84% – of Chinese launches had government or military payloads intended primarily for electronic intelligence and optical imagery. Meanwhile, in the United States, 61% of launches were for non-military, academic or commercial use, primarily for Earth observation or telecommunications.
Space stations are another area where significant differences lurk below the surface. Since the 1990s, the United States has worked with 14 other nationsincluding Russia, to exploit the international space station. The ISS is quite large, with 16 modules, and has led technological and scientific advances. But the ISS is now 24 years old and participating nations plan to withdraw it in 2030.
The Chinese Tiangong Space Station is the new kid on the block. The construction was only completed end of 2022and it is much smaller—with only three modules. China built and launched all the different parts and remains the sole operator of the station, despite inviting others to join.
China is undoubtedly expanding its space capabilities, and in a report released in August 2022, the Pentagon predicts that China will overtake American capabilities in space as early as 2045. However, the United States is unlikely to remain stagnant as it continues to increase space funding.
Allies as force multipliers
A major point of difference between the United States and China is the nature and number of international collaborations.
For decades, NASA has been successfully cultivating international And commercial partnerships in all fields, from the development of specific space technologies to the transport of humans in space. The US government has also signed 169 spatial data sharing agreements with 33 States and intergovernmental organizations, 129 with commercial partners and seven with academic institutions.
China also has allies helping with space–notably Russia and the members of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, including Iran, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey. However, China’s collaborators are fewer in number and have much less developed space capabilities.
Efforts to return to the surface of the Moon perfectly highlight this difference in ally support and synergy. The United States and China intend to send people to the surface of the Moon and establish lunar bases in the near future. These competing lunar targets are often cited as evidence of the space racebut they are very different in terms of partnerships and scope.
In 2019, Russia and China have agreed to go to the moon together by 2028. Russia is supplying its Luna landers and Oryol crewed orbiters, while China is improving its Chang’e robotic spacecraft. Their future international lunar research station is “open to all interested parties and international partners“, but, to date, no other country has committed to the Chinese and Russian effort.
In contrast, since 2020, 24 nations have joined the US-led group Accords of Artemis. This international agreement defines the cooperation principles for future space activities and, through the Artemis program, specifically aims to get people back to the Moon by 2025 and establish a lunar base and lunar space station soon after.
In addition to the broad international participation, the Artemis program has contracted with an impressive number number of private companies develop a range of technologiesSince lunar landers For lunar construction methods And more.
China isn’t the only game in town
While China may seem like the United States’ main competitor in space, other countries have space capabilities and aspirations that rival China’s.
India spends billions on space and plans to back to the moonmaybe with Japanin the near future. South Korea, Israel, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Türkiye, Germany And the European Union also plan independent lunar missions. Japan has developed impressive technological space capabilities, including proximity rendezvous technology to send a spacecraft on an asteroid and bring samples back to Earththat rival and even surpass those of China.
In the past, the space race was about who could reach the stars first and get home. Today, the focus has shifted to survival and even prosperity in the harsh environment of space. I think it’s no surprise that, despite its decisive lead, the United States has partnered with others to go to the Moon and beyond. China is doing the same, but on a smaller scale. The picture that emerges is not that of a “race” but of a complex system with the United States as the leader working closely with vast networks of partners.
Svetla Ben Itzhak is an assistant professor of space and international relations at Air University.
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