It’s about more than money. The U.S. needs a strategy to harness private innovation.
It’s been 60 years since President John F. Kennedy declared “we choose to go to the moon.” In a landmark address at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy affirmed America’s commitment to the space race with the Soviet Union. Seven years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon—one of the most significant moments in the human history.
Today we are in a new space race, this time with China. And our economic and national security both are at serious risk.
The experts are worried, according to a report from the State of the Space Industrial Base conference, held in June and sponsored by the U.S. Space Force, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Air Force Research Lab. For the first time since the conferences began in 2019, the 350 participants from industry and government were pessimistic about the U.S. space sector. They predicted that China will overtake the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2032.
It isn’t only a question of money. The annual budgets for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ($24 billion) and Space Force ($24.5 billion) dwarf what the Chinese government officially spends on its space programs ($10.29 billion in 2021). It’s a matter of having the right strategy for harnessing the energy and innovation of private industry so America’s space leadership doesn’t get stuck on the launch pad like the current Artemis I mission has.
Xi Jinping was forthright about China’s strategy in the preamble of a January 2022 white paper: “To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is our eternal dream.” Boosting China’s commercial space industry is a critical part of this plan, “which is subject to and serves the overall national strategy.” According to the Chinese data company Qichacha, there are now about 95,000 space-related enterprises in China. The country will complete more than 60 space launches in 2022, surpassing its record-setting 55 successful launch missions in 2021.
If China becomes the dominant space power in the next two decades, that will put in Beijing’s hands the future of global telecommunications, space exploration and human settlement as well as the application of space satellites and technology for strategic and military use.
If NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is correct and China is already laying claim to the moon, it’s clear that to win the space race, the U.S. needs a national strategy for maintaining and promoting America’s leadership in space.
The first step is strengthening our space industrial base. Kennedy’s 1962 speech came at a time when it was clear that the federal money poured into the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs (more than $110 billion when adjusted for inflation) would feed American industry and workers, while the innovative technologies that government developed to reach the moon and space would benefit the nation. Those innovations included computers, semiconductors and fire-resistant polymers.
Today, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin lead in innovation and productivity. SpaceX alone conducted 37 orbital launches so far this year. America’s dominance of a commercial space sector that reached $469 billion in 2021 globally, according to the Space Foundation, will be an essential support for our national defense and intelligence communities. These companies also are a springboard to a future space sector that includes economic activity on the moon and Mars. U.S. military and intelligence services will depend on the private companies that build the rockets, launch and track the satellites, provide the sensors, optical equipment, and encryption that keeps data and images secure, and provide ground support to missions in the sky.
A World War II-style mobilization model for harnessing this thriving commercial base to support national security is a key to the future of American space leadership.
Space will be the next great commons, a shared global resource like the oceans or cyberspace. History shows that these great commons are inevitably a source of competition and conflict, not voluntary cooperation. Whoever dominates space will determine the future of nations. We have to abandon the globalist fantasy that the U.S., China and Russia will work together to keep space rules-based, free and open.
For a global shared resource domain to benefit all, it needs rules as well as a rule maker and enforcer. In the case of the oceans, for 200 years that was the British navy; in the 20th century it was the U.S. Given what we know of China’s behavior in other circumstances, American leadership in space is essential for the future of humanity.
Kennedy himself struck this note in his Rice University speech. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won,” he said. “For space science . . . has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”
Sixty years later, we face a similar choice when it comes to the space race. How we respond will determine the future of space and the future of freedom in the 21st century.
Mr. Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of “To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.”
Appeared in the September 12, 2022, print edition as ‘How to Beat China in the New Space Race’.