The United States and China have been battling for supremacy over several significant areas over the past few years. The battle between both superpowers especially started over economic strength, but it has since evolved into something much deeper.
Now, with both countries set to ramp up endeavors for space, it seems evident that this will be the new frontier for their rivalry - a frontier that might see some of their fiercest clashes yet.
The Space Race 2.0
Over the past few years, China and the United States have been at loggerheads over pretty much everything. Technology power is shifting significantly - the United States has the most valuable tech companies. However, China is a much larger market, and some of the resources needed by these American companies are still majorly in China. The same goes for financial power - American firms are more valuable. Still, China remains a major market for them, and the available capital in China seems to be even greater than is available in the United States.
When it comes to space, however, the battle seems to be taking shape rather quickly. NASA already established a presence in space, especially since it seems to have a controlling interest in the International Space Station (ISS). Now, China is moving ahead with its dedicated space station.
The rationale for building a space station is understandable. The ISS has been the de facto structure for decades, and a partnership of countries run it. However, China has been unable to join this league of nations, meaning that its scientists have been unable to contribute to some of the breakthroughs and projects being conducted up there.
Now that China seems ready to put its structure up there, the country could finally break free from U.S. control and be freer to operate in space.
China Is Moving Fast
It is especially impressive to see how quickly China has moved in its space endeavors. The country didn’t begin its space missions until 1992 - some decades after the United States and the former Soviet Union kicked off the space race. Still, despite the late start, progress has been swift.
China sent out its first taikonaut into space in 2003. In 2011, the country was able to put its first temporary module into orbit. As of 2019, China had become the first country to land a lunar rover on the far side of the moon. In 2020, while the world continued battling the coronavirus, China managed to bring back the first moon rock samples in over four decades.
This pattern underscores what has become a trend with China. The country might not be the first to develop a program, but the Chinese government doesn’t joke around when it gets serious about something. In less than 40 years, the country has built a space profile that can be held up against that of any other country in the world. It is especially significant as it seems that only the United States has the time and resources to focus on space programs right now.
This brings us to the upcoming Chinese space station. Work on the project has been rapid as usual, and the government recently sent Tianhe - a life support capsule - into space. Tianhe contains living quarters and other facilities for space crew members, and it is part of a multi-stage development process for the Chinese space station. For now, the Chinese government believes the space station should be up and running in a few months.
When the space station does get built, China will be a significant threat to the United States. There are several prominent threats with the ISS, and there are signs that some of the U.S.’s partners - including and especially Russia - could pull out of the ISS altogether. With a space station up and running, China could lure the United States’ partners and stifle Uncle Sam when it comes to space programs and endeavors.
All of a sudden, the United States has found itself in another space race. This time, however, losing could set the country years back when it comes to development.
Private Aerospace Companies to America’s Rescue
Of course, this isn’t to say that there’s no hope for the United States. NASA has reiterated its mission to get people back to the moon - and perhaps even to Mars.
Still, the United States can’t put all its hopes on NASA for this one. Thankfully, there’s an ace in the hole - private space companies. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and more have sprung up in the past few years. With their significant financial backing and ability to move quickly on projects, these companies provide a significant advantage to NASA and the United States.
Private space companies are doing a great deal of work to get people into space and bolster the American presence up there. NASA already understands that it can’t get things done on its own, and it has partnered with several of these private companies. By working together, these parties have a chance of at least matching the growing Chinese effort in space.