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Phony Space Race

Jeff Foust at The Space Review posts a good article on the hubbub about the supposedly-impending space race with the Chinese.

He lists three common reactions to the notion of China having a manned space program:

Some eagerly anticipate the launch, ready to congratulate China for a feat only two other nations have achieved. Others are dreading the event, fearing that it is another sign of growing Chinese nationalism and willingness to challenge the world?s primary superpower, the United States. And yet others see this as an opportunity for America, a way for it to reinvigorate its space program to face a new Chinese challenge.

I think he’s right, but as with any such categorization, the subtleties get lost when similar positions are lumped together.

I personally favor a “space race” with China, but not the all-out dash that we saw in the Apollo era (and for just the reasons he describes). I don’t think that sort of race is likely to happen with China, anyhow — the geopolitical situation is much different today than in the 1960’s, and China has quite different capabilities, interests, and motivations than the old Soviet Union. Instead, I would expect a new space race to take the form of a low-boil rivalry, with the Chinese doing what they can to catch up with the West (sending men into space, sending probes to the Moon, building a space station, etc.), and the West working to extend its capabilities in order to stay ahead. A metaphor for this might be the military aircraft of the 1970’s and 1980’s: the Soviets generally worked to keep up with our technological developments (and to outpace us in a few areas, where they could), while the US worked to develop new technologies (the prime example being stealth) in order to keep a step ahead of the competition. Each successful project fed into the next program, instead of being an end in itself — victory in that race consisted of maintaining a state (being ahead of the competition in capabilities) rather than being the first to perform some stunt.

While the metaphor is imperfect (stealth hardly translates to the commercial sector, for example, in the way you would want a space race to spin off new capabilities), the point is that it is possible to have a low-intensity space race, one which won’t peter out as soon as a given goal is achieved.

Such a low-intensity space race also has the potential to grow us out of the bureacratic monopoly so many space advocates bemoan. NASA commonly advocates Big Programs, the sort which involve as many centers and as high a “gee-whiz” factor as possible as a means of expanding its turf and budget. This institutional tendency is at odds with an incremental approach to expanding capabilities, as incremental improvements don’t generate the kind of enthusiasm and funding that giant, blank-sheet projects do. But if the new space race is not to be fought in the Big Program arena (since China simply can’t afford to do anything to compete with us there), where does that leave NASA? The agency either has to undergo a serious overhaul of its institutional philosophy, or else step out of the way to allow (or even encourage and enable) private industry to take up the challenge.

In a nutshell, a renewed space race, this time with China, doesn’t have to take the form of the all-out single-goal Moon race with the USSR. Given the changed circumstances, it may well be a low-intensity race, one which results in the incremental development of broader and deeper capabilities.

1 comment to Phony Space Race

  • Carl Carlsson

    I like your spin. I, too, had welcomed Chinese successes in so much as it might get us off our asses. My big worry, however, has been that we would eventually get moving but only towards a flags-and-footprints mission. I’m glad you pointed out that there are other alternative scenarios.

    When we beat them, let’s do it with an awesome display of capitalism.