On April 29, China launched its first module for the new Tiangong space station aboard its Long March 5B rocket. The module was successfully placed into low Earth orbit and now awaits the delivery of additional modules and, eventually, men and women for its crew. That accomplishment made only a few headlines as the United States continues to take China’s ventures in space in stride.
Why worry? Consider the fact that China is the only country in decades that succeeded in softly landing spacecraft and rovers on the Moon. It is also the first country in history to land on the far side of the Moon where it’s near impossible to determine what they’re doing. Earlier this year, China not only landed on the Moon but also returned to Earth with a treasure trove of samples from the surface. It was done without a human setting foot on the surface, illustrating China’s advancements in technology. The last time the United States brought anything back from the Moon was aboard Apollo 17 in 1972. And, of course, with all the wonderful success of the U.S. Mars rover Perseverance and its helicopter companion, Ingenuity, the press has pretty much ignored China’s Mars orbiter that successfully landed its own rover on the surface of Mars at Utopia Planitia on May 14. Also widely ignored is China’s announced alliance with Russia to establish a base on the Moon while the United States continues to test rockets and endure delays in returning to our nearest celestial neighbor. Perhaps the seemingly complacent reaction in the United States is based on the nine times the U.S. has landed softly on Mars since 1976. If that’s true, such complacency is misplaced. China’s Mars program was developed years after the United States’ efforts began and they have caught up in record time.
The reality is the United States is in a space race far more critical than the one it won against Russia decades ago. This new space race with China is about colonizing the Moon for commercial and, most likely, military purposes. It is a race that is critical to the United States’ strategic defense. In this high-stakes game, what risks are the competitors willing to take for the gains they want to achieve?
One piece of evidence that differentiates how the United States and China look at the risk/reward ratio is the recent crash in the Indian Ocean of China’s booster rocket that sent the space station module into orbit. It appears China took no measure to ensure that the rocket would not reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and crash on a populated area of a country that had the capacity to hold them responsible for any losses, including lives. Instead, China played the odds. Considering the Earth is 70% oceans and most of there are only a handful of countries that could retaliate against China, it was unlikely there would be repercussions. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. China played the odds and the 20-ton rocket crashed harmlessly into the ocean.
Never mind that there are eleven more missions scheduled to rendezvous with the first module during the construction of the space station. One can assume China is willing to gamble with where the boosters on those launches will crash as well in order to achieve its goal of completing the space station. Another fact: the current International Space Station is scheduled to be decommissioned in a few years and Russia has announced it will not partner with the United States any longer. Instead, Russia says it plans to launch its own space station. That will take years to accomplish. The United States has no plans to replace the ISS, apparently hoping that private enterprises like SpaceX and Blue Origin will do so. Presently, both companies are focused on the Moon and Mars, not space stations. That means that once China’s station is completed, China will likely have the only space station in operation peering down on Earth. Soon it might also have the first ever colony on the Moon with its new partner, Russia.
Will the United States win the space race with China? What risks is it willing to take to win? The odds seem unfavorable- I would not make any bets on that gamble.