In past blogs, I’ve written about the ramifications of the International Space Station’s scheduled decommissioning in 2031 when it will be intentionally crashed into the Pacific Ocean. It will have had a long run with unprecedented cooperation between the U.S., Russia, and other nations. But that cooperation will end. The Russia-China announcement that they will work together on the space programs put the final nail in the coffin of U.S.-Russia support for the next ISS.
The U.S. is scrambling about what to do. It presently has no plans to build a replacement. While experts say the life of the ISS can be extended beyond 2031, doing so would require Russia’s cooperation. With relations between the two countries on tenuous grounds, it didn’t help when the U.S. Commerce Department sanctioned Russian firms with military ties. While the sanctions may well have been justified, in response, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space program, tweeted, “These sanctions are harmful, because they will create additional obstacles and irritations in such an important cooperation between Russians and Americans in space, in particular, on the ISS.”
Meanwhile, China is well on its way to completing construction of the Tiangong space station. While smaller than the ISS, it’s more than capable of spying and other intelligence efforts, most likely the primary reason China is launching and manning it.
But China isn’t doing this alone. Russia is their space partner. The alliance in space was confirmed at the opening of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. On February 4, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping reaffirmed their cooperation in space (and more) in a lengthy joint statement on “Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development.”
In the statement, the two superpowers say that they “oppose attempts by some States to turn outer space into an arena of armed confrontation and reiterate their intention to make all necessary efforts to prevent the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space.” Can they be trusted, particularly in light of press reporting Russia’s and China’s development of space-based weapons? As usual, one might wonder about the hypocrisy of the assurances in their joint statement.
This comes on the heels of China’s January 28, 2022 announcement that it is signing an agreement with Russia to build a “research station” on the moon. I explore the potential reality of such efforts in my novel, Dragon on the Far Side of the Moon. While a work of fiction, we’ve also seen fiction become fact more often than we’d like.
This is the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Now in alliance with the Russian Bear, will the U.S. remain a hunter or become nothing more than prey as the exploration – and exploitation – of space continues with unprecedented cooperation between two countries believed to be adverse to U.S. interests? One can hope that U.S. programs like Artemis, Perseverance, and private sector efforts to build a space station, colonize the Moon and Mars will save the U.S. dominance in space. And there is some good news in the Biden Administration’s budget proposals for NASA. But don’t hold your breath. China also has a lander and rover on Mars and is the only country that has ever landed on the far side of the Moon and brought back samples. Press reports say they plan even more. The Space Race is back and once again, the U.S. is falling behind.