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Is the US in a space race against China?


Headlines proclaiming the emergence of a new “space race” between the US and China have become commonplace in news coverage after many of the exciting launches in recent years. Experts have pointed to China’s fast progress in space as evidence of an emerging landscape where China is compete directly with the US for supremacy.

This idea of ​​a China-US space race sounds convincing given the broader story of China’s rise, but how accurate is it? Like a professor who studies space travel and international relations, my research is aimed at quantifying the strength and capabilities of different nations in space. Looking at different capabilities, the data paints a much more complex picture than a tight space race between the US and China. For now, the reality is more like what I call a complex hegemony – one state, the US, still is dominates in key space capabilitiesand this lead is further enhanced by a strong network of partners.

SpaceX rockets launch hundreds of private satellites into orbit each year from the seven active U.S. spaceports.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A clear leader makes for a boring race

Calling the current situation a race implies that the US and China have roughly the same capabilities in space. But in several key areas, the US is far ahead not only of China, but of all other space-faring nations combined.

Starting with spending: In 2021, the US space budget was approx $59.8 billion. China has invested heavily in aerospace and missile technology over the past decade and has doubled its spending in the past five years. But with an estimated budget of $16.18 billion in 2021 it will still be spending less than a third of the US budget.

The US also leads significantly in the number of active satellites. Currently there are 5,465 total operational satellites in orbit around the Earth. The US operates 3,433, or 63% of them. China, on the other hand, has 541.

Likewise, the US has more active spaceports than China. Of seven operational launch sites at home and abroad and at least 13 more spaceports in development, the US has more options for launching payloads into different orbits. In contrast, China alone has four operational spaceports of two more plannedall located on its own territory.

Parity with nuance

While the US has a clear advantage over China in many areas of space, the differences between the two countries are more nuanced in some respects.

In 2021, for example, China made an attempt 55 orbital launches, four more than the 51 in the US. The total number may be similar, but the rockets delivered very different payloads to orbit. The vast majority – 84% – of Chinese launches had government or military payloads primarily for electronic intelligence and optical imaging. Meanwhile, in the US, 61% of launches were for non-military, academic or commercial use, primarily for Earth observation or telecommunications.

Space stations are another area where important differences hide beneath the surface. Since the 1990s, the US has been cooperating with 14 other countriesincluding Russia, every International Space Station. The ISS is quite large, with 16 modules, and has been traveling technological and scientific breakthroughs. But the ISS is now 24 years old and the participating nations are planning to retire in 2030.

A diagram of the Tiangong space station.
Construction of China’s Tiangong space station began in 2021, and the small three-module station opened for research in December 2022.
Shujianyang/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The Chinese Tiangong Space Station is the new kid on the block. Construction was only completed at the end of 2022 and is much smaller – with only three modules. China has built and launched all of the various components and nevertheless remains the sole operator of the station invited others to join.

China is undoubtedly expanding its space capabilities, and in a report published in August 2022, the Pentagon predicted that China would surpass US capabilities in space as early as 2045. However, the US is unlikely to stand still as it continues to increase funding for space.

Allies as force multipliers

An important point of difference between the US and China is the nature and number of international partnerships.

For decades, NASA has been fruitfully cultivating International And advertisement partnerships in everything from developing specific space technologies to flying humans in space. So does the US government signed 169 space data sharing agreements with 33 states and intergovernmental organizations, 129 with commercial partners and seven with academic institutions.

China also has allies that help with space — notably Russia and members of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, including Iran, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey. However, China’s collaborators are fewer in number and have much less developed space capabilities.

A man signing a document with a Brazilian and American flag on the desk.
In just two years, 24 countries, including Brazil, have joined the US-led Artemis Accords. This international agreement outlines the goals of space exploration in the near future.
Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovacoes/Wikimedia Commons, CC DOOR

Attempts to return to the Moon’s surface do a great job of highlighting this difference in ally support and synergy. Both the US and China have plans to send humans to the surface of the moon and establish lunar bases in the near future. These competing lunar goals are often cited as evidence of the space racebut they are very different in terms of partnerships and scope.

2019, Russia and China agreed to go to the moon together by 2028. Russia is contributing its Luna landers and Oryol manned orbiters, while China is improving its Chang’e robotic spacecraft. Their future International Lunar Research Station is “open to all interested parties and international partners”, but to date no other countries have committed to the Chinese and Russian effort.

In contrast, as of 2020, 24 countries have joined the US-led Artemis chords. This international agreement outlines shared principles of cooperation for future space activity and, through the Artemis program, specifically aimed at returning humans to the moon by 2025 and establishing a lunar base and lunar space station shortly thereafter.

In addition to the broad international participation, the Artemis program has a staggering contract length number of private companies developing one range of technologiesby lunar landers Unpleasant lunar construction methods And more.

China isn’t the only game in town

While China may seem like the US’s main competitor in space, other countries have space capabilities and aspirations that rival China’s.

India spends billions on space and plans to do so return to the moonpossibly with Japanin the near future. South Korea, Israel, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Germany And the European Union also plan independent lunar missions. Japan has developed impressive space technological capabilities, including rendezvous proximity technology to achieve a spacecraft to an asteroid and return samples to Earthwhich rival and even surpass that of China.

In the past, the space race was about who could reach the stars first and return home. Today, the goal has shifted to surviving and even thriving in the harsh environment of space. I believe it is not surprising that the US, despite its decisive lead, is collaborating with others to get to the moon and beyond. China is doing the same, but on a smaller scale. The picture that emerges is not that of a “race”, but of a complex system led by the US and working closely with extensive networks of partners.

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