Digital Trend Alert
U.S. vs. China: the new space race is on
Carol Ingley, President, Media Mogul Enterprises
Digital Trends and Key Words: space industry, space launches, U.S. space industry, China's space industry, private sector space industry, SpaceX, Blue Origin, space race, launch vehicles, payloads, space stations, lunar stations, NASA, Artemis
A new rivalry has emerged in the space industry. In the 1950s and 1960s, the hot rivalry was between the U.S. and Soviet Union (now Russia). The U.S. pulled ahead in the space race with the manned Apollo 11, landing on the moon in 1969. Meanwhile, the Soviet space program and space agency got mired in bureaucracy. They never made it to the moon. It's decades later and now a space rivalry has emerged between the U.S. and China.
There’s an expression that may be telling in the space race between the U.S. and China. The expression is: the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that is the best way to bet.
Yet putting a big value on the swift and strong may not be the best way to bet when it comes to the space industry. The expression actually changes the meaning from the Biblical verse upon which it is based. That verse says: “The race is not given to the swift or to the strong but to the one who endures to the end.” Will this space race be about being fast and being strong or will it be about enduring to the end, along the lines of the lesson learned from the tortoise and the hare fable – slow but sure wins?
Big Ticket Items
Getting to space is expensive and that expense never lets up. The hardware that is required to participate in the space race has always been capital intensive. A short list of these big ticket items includes:
Non-reusable launch vehicles: example rockets
Reusable launch vehicles: example space shuttle and SpaceX’s Falcon
Payload: carried by the launch vehicle including satellites, space exploration tools, spacecraft carrying humans, animals, or cargo.
Lunar Bases: a facility on the surface of the moon, allowing human activity on the Moon.
Space Telecommunications Systems: telecommunications systems in space such as StarLink
Space Stations: It is a spacecraft that offers support for astronauts in space for an extended amount of time, often for many months.
Mission Control Center: a facility that manages and controls space flights.
Exploration Tools: space telescopes, intelligent robots, super-high-speed communications, sophisticated detectors, probes and instruments
Not every country can compete in this very expensive space game with the above highly expensive components. It’s not just making the components but having them evolve and change with the market needs, meaning the expense of research and development is also part of the cost package.
Four Top Countries
Most countries or regions of the world are not capable of completing space launches. The top four countries/regions who are capable of space launches are: the U.S., Russia, China and Europe.
For this launch capability, the U.S. has the space agency NASA (which has recently partnered with the U.S. Space Force) with a robust private sector participation by SpaceX with its own capability to complete space launches. The U.S. has also succeeded in launching astronauts into space, often to the International Space Station, as well as being the first (and still the only) to have astronauts walk on the moon.
Russia has launch capability with ROSCOSMOS. In 2015, ROSCOSMOS's merged with another government entity, resulting in its current form as a Russian nationalized agency. Russia has also succeeded in launching cosmonauts into space, primarily to the International Space Station.
China has two space agencies. The China National Space Administration or CNSA is responsible for civil space administration and international space cooperation. The second agency is the China Manned Space Agency or CMSA. It is responsible for the administration of the China Manned Space Program.
In Europe, twenty-two European countries form the European Space Agency (ESA) headquartered in Paris, France. ESA is dedicated to the exploration of space. Ariane 5 is the launch vehicle used by ESA, located in French Guiana. The launch vehicle is operated by Arianespace for ESA. ESA has not yet put astronauts into space.
Truth or Fiction
A rivalry has now developed between the U.S. and China. Both of these countries’ space programs are discussed, first the U.S. and then China.
But first, is that statement reflect truth or is it fiction? Is it a rivalry? Some say truth, specifically. Gen. David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force. Recently, he declared vehemently, “The fact, that in essence, on average, they [the Chinese] are building and fielding and updating their space capabilities at twice the rate we are means that very soon, if we don’t start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us.”
But some say fiction. Money talks in the space industry. Space funding in China has grown significantly but it stood at $8.9 billion in 2020 compared with the U.S. funding of $48 billion. More significantly is the fact that China is far behind the U.S. in the participation of the private sector in space. Still, China could have an ace up its sleeve by partnering with Russia. They have been cooperating for some time.
U.S. Space Program
In the U.S., NASA’s new mission is named Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. The Artemis mission is lunar at first and then will shift to Mars.
During a news conference in August 2022, Bill Nelson, a NASA administrator, explained, "We're going back to the moon in order to learn to live, to work, to survive." .He went on to clarify that it is all about how to keep people alive in hostile environments as well as learning how to use planetary resources. The plan is to establish a sustained human presence on the moon. As that plan progresses, an orbiting lunar outpost called the Gateway will be put in place. At some point, the focus will turn to Mars.
In the private sector, which is very active in the U.S. for the space industry, the three largest defense contracting companies are Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Technologies. These companies and many others are packed with resources and experience in the space industry.
The U.S. private sector for space, though, has changed rapidly over the past decade or so. Two newcomers are SpaceX and Blue Origin. These companies are creating innovative technologies and plan themselves to develop industry in space. SpaceX is likely the best known newcomer. Elon Musk started SpaceX with his eye on creating human colonies on Mars. But he is interested in industry on the planet as well.
Much of the innovative future forthe U.S. space programs may well come from the private sector. NASA’s plan is to partner with that private sector whenever possible. How the partnerships between NASA and the private sector will all shake out is still unknown, it should be noted.
Chinese Space Program
According to Chrisotpher Newman, a professor at the U.K.’s Northumbria University, China’s ambitions are big. First, the country wants to be the superpower in science and technology. Second, by 2045, China wants to be the leading space power.
Big ambitions require big moves. In December 2020, China went to the moon. Its lunar mission returned to earth with moon rocks. It was a first for China. More telling was that it is evidence of China moving forward into space travel and exploration.
The U.S. government, as many are familiar with, owns the Global Positioning System or GPS. Now China has finished its own satellite navigation system. The system is named Beidou.
In 2021, a crewed mission from China landed at their space station, another bold move.
Like the U.S., the Chinese eyes are fixed on the red planet. Their goal is to land humans on Mars by 2033.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have been madly filing patents related to space and space travel. If the patents set the standards, China could end up being a gatekeeper to space development in the future
What’s missing in China is a big participation by the private sector. That could prove key to who wins this race. Historically, in the U.S., the private sector moves faster and with more innovation than the government. The U.S. private sector has aggressively moved forward in the space industry, with SpaceX standing out, making big splashes with success after success.
According to Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, as told to CNBC: “The United States has a strong policy for space exploration, a clear direction, and capable allies and partners. The challenge for the United States is not so much what China does, but how well and how quickly the United States implements its own plans.”
So back to the hare and tortoise fable. The tortoise just plods along and wins. The hare zips ahead but gets distracted. But that’s a short race in the fable. This is a very, very long race. The winner may be a combination of the two: the country with the hard drive forward (hare-like) with a steady pace over a long period of time (tortoise like but a longer race) wins the crown.
Carol Ingley is a marketing and finance consultant as well as a futurist and technologist. She is president of Media Mogul Enterprises.
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