Last week’s launch from a base in the Gobi Desert was followed obsessively inside China but largely overlooked in the United States — overshadowed by President Biden’s summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Although both adversaries threaten U.S. interests, Americans need to worry more about a rising and militarizing China than a revanchist Russia. The new space race helps illustrate why.
The Chinese didn’t put an astronaut into space until 2003, 42 years after the Soviets, but Beijing has been making cosmic strides that, unlike the Kremlin’s advances during the Cold War, have yet to rouse Washington out of its relative complacency.
Last month, China landed a rover on Mars — becoming the only nation besides ours to do so. Last September,the Chinese launched and recovered a spaceplane that spent two days in low-Earth orbit. In 2019, China became the first country to land a craft on the far side of the moon.
The same day Biden met with Putin, Russian and Chinese officials unveiled a roadmap in St. Petersburg to jointly build a lunar base that could accommodate humans by 2036. The Chinese have also conducted tests that indicate advanced capabilities to knock out U.S. satellites. Last June, they launched the last in a constellation of 35 satellites to create a rival network to our GPS system.
In April, the U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment warned that “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.”
This threat isn’t limited to the vacuum of space. China’s efforts must be viewed in the context of its ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, smothering of Hong Kong, saber-rattling against Taiwan and obstruction of independent investigations into the origins of the coronavirus.
Fortunately, most leaders in both U.S. political parties recognize the need to counter China and support our space program. In 2019, the Trump administration moved up by four years, to 2024, the timetable for returning astronauts to the moon. The Biden team embraces this aggressive, if underfunded, goal.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson held up a photograph of China’s Mars rover during a recent House hearing as he requested more funding for the Human Landing System. “That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff,” he testified. NASA wants $11 billion in the infrastructure package, in addition to its annual budget request of $24.7 billion, a 6 percent increase from the current fiscal year.
If we are to maintain U.S. supremacy in space, we should also try to learn from our early setbacks. Jeff Shesol’s “Mercury Rising,” published this month, tells the fascinating backstory of how John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. Even though John F. Kennedy campaigned on closing the space gap, his initial commitment seemed more rhetorical than real. Kennedy’s budget director resisted spending on manned spaceflight.
When Kennedy told a joint session of Congress that America should try to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he and his top aides were struck by the lack of applause in the chamber. The Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee called Kennedy’s budget request “wholly unrealistic and fantastic beyond measure.”
Gallup polling in 1961 found that almost 6 in 10 Americans opposed spending the $40 billion they were told it would cost to put men on the moon. When respondents ranked the issues for which they’d be willing to pay more taxes, space came in fifth. Early media coverage focused on the expense, not excitement, of a mission whose prospects were considered remote.
The success of Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission created momentum and built support for additional spending. “Everything in retrospect has an air of inevitability, but it wasn’t,” Shesol said in an interview.
Even after Glenn’s achievement, many Americans remained skeptical about exploring the final frontier. Shesol said that’s why Kennedy delivered what became his famous “we choose to go to the moon” address at Rice University. “This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space,” Kennedy declared. “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not. … No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”
Half a century later, in the face of a different communist threat, another new age is dawning. Yes, Russia remains a threat. The global pandemic is still with us. And red ink is spilling for decades to come. But for all the competing budget and political concerns, the martyred president’s words feel freshly urgent.