In the skies above our heads, humanity’s titanic geopolitical superpowers are yet again duking it out for supremacy among the stars. Only this time, unlike the 1960s, there’s three of them. Or is there? It’s complicated. Join us today as we helmet up and examine the new space race unfolding right now between the US, China and Russia. What you might call the oldschool or ‘classic’ space race started in the 1950s, peaked during the 60s, and petered out by the mid 70s. It was, to be sure, an unofficial race. Nobody waved a novelty green flag to set things off.
But the two largest economic and technological powers of the day – the United States of America and the Soviet Union – fought bitterly to be the first to make meaningful headway into the cosmos. Their achievements are legendary, not least phenomenal feats like putting the first human in orbit – that was the Soviets – and the first footprints on the moon by an American. Astonishing technical and logistical accomplishments in their own right, these landmark events also signalled power, dominance and prestige. And it’s important to understand they were very deliberately intended to illustrate the effectiveness of each combatants’ economic might, and their respective systems of government – broadly, communism on the Soviet side, and liberal-democratic capitalism from the States.
The desire to prove not just technical, but ideological superiority over their foes drove both sides toward literal greatness. So let’s flash forward to today. Who’s even participating in the race for space in 2021… and is it even a race? The most striking difference between the classic space race and today is the entrance to the fold of China. The People’s Republic is undeniably a superpower in terrestrial terms, but only put its first astronaut into orbit in 2003. Owing to the secretive nature of the Chinese government, figures on investment are hard to come by.
But it’s reckoned by even the more generous in-the-know estimates that China spends at most a quarter of what the US budgets for space. Still, it’s doing some pretty interesting stuff up there. Take BeiDu, China’s satellite navigational array and main rival to America’s heretofore dominant GPS system. Last summer the 55th and final BeiDu satellite was put into orbit, making the array fully functional. This independence from the American system matters a lot, In that it enables the People’s Republic to be independent in everything from fast food delivery navigation to missile launches.
As part of China’s expansionist Belt And Road initiative, other nations like Brunei and Pakistan are now choosing BeiDu over GPS, a powerful illustration of modern imperialism in action. Oh, and experts say it’s 20cm more accurate than GPS, which is used for both military and civil applications. If all that seems a little bland and arcane – it actually isn’t, but anyway – China is also carrying out more than its share of grandstanding space missions. In 2019 it placed a rover on the dark side of the moon, a feat lavishly praised by NASA as a “first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment.” China’s Chang’e-5 mission recently returned to earth with rock samples, something not done by anybody since the 1970s.
China is also in the process of assembling its own orbital space station, called Tiangong 3 or ‘heavenly palace’. Ten years ago ago the US congress forbade the Chinese government from having any involvement in the ISS. So now, during the course of 11 missions scheduled over the next two years, China will build its own. And it will almost certainly outlast the ISS, which is likely to be retired in the next decade or so. . China’s ambitions also extend further out into the solar system. NASA’s Perseverance rover quite rightly made headlines around the world after arriving safely onto the surface of Mars a couple of weeks ago.
What was less widely reported was that a Chinese mission with its own rover, Tianwen-1, aka ‘Quest for heavenly truth’, also arrived at the red planet, and is as we speak in a so-called ‘parking orbit’ around the red planet. To support this rover mission, China has been busily upgrading it’s earthbound monitoring stations in the far-western Xinjiang region and northeastern Heilongjiang province – key infrastructure that will prove invaluable to future space missions. There’s more. China is currently planning a Voyager-style probe mission to be launched out into the more distant solar system.
Under the working title IHP, or Interstellar Heliosphere Probe, the mission will dispatch two space probes to investigate the vast, electrically-charged gas bubble which surrounds our solar system and fluctuates as we travel through the galaxy. One of the IHP probes will use not one but two flypasts of earth, and one of Jupiter, in order to pick up speed, and is expected to reach the heliosphere in 2049. It’s counterpart probe is due to swing by cold, distant Neptune in around 2038. And in case you thinkAmerica has the monopoly on buccaneering private-sector rocketeers like Elon Musk, think again.
Chinese tech billionaire Lei Jun is an enthusiastic investor in Galaxy Space, one of several independent operators working in the country. Galaxy Space already runs China’s first low-earth-orbit 5G satellite system, and is currently building its own gigafactory in Jiangsu Province in order to build and launch hundreds of satellites to rival Elon Musk’s Starlink internet scheme. Another private Chinese firm in the fray is iSpace, who have raised billions in startup capital and, among other eye-catching wheezes, are planning to develop a reusable spaceplane to service the nascent orbital tourism market.
Despite all that furious activity, however, many China analysts take the view that the People’s Republic is in no mood to race. Philosophically inclined to go about things in a cautious, methodical fashion, it’s argued that China is simply playing catchup – for now. Militarily, for sure, space science has value, but only in order to mount a convincing deterrent, analysts believe. Certainly there is some propaganda value to these big projects, and Chinese tourists indeed flock to tropical Hainan island to watch launches of the country’s priude-and-joy Long March-5B spacecraft. But the country’s rover technology, while impressive, lags decades behind the United States.
So where are the Americans at? Pessimistic observers argue that since the Space Shuttle programme was wound down in 2011, the US hasn’t captured the word’s imagination with anything truly groundbreaking in the field of space travel. Certainly, until recently at least, NASA relied upon Russian spacecraft to ferry people and supplies to the ISS. Most of the really exciting space stuff to come out of the states, goes the argument, is thanks to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and it’s ambitious program of Starship development. But that’s really not the whole story. Take the Artemis program, a Nasa-led initiative that plans to put the first woman on the moon by 2024. Not only that, but Artemis is looking to prepare the moon for future resource development, and establish it as a stepping stone to Mars.
On the way to realising the Artemis project, Nasa is developing its first deep-space rocket since Saturn V – the so-called Space Launch System – and is planning the not-insignificant task of putting a space station around the moon, known as the Gateway project. SpaceX, incidentally, already has the contract to run supply missions to and from Gateway. NASA’s Perseverance rover is just getting started on its quest to seek out life and prepare for future manned missions to mars. It even has a helicopter aboard. And wait until you hear about Dragonfly, a NASA mission that’s putting an eight-rotor drone shop onto the tantalisingly organic-rich surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, by 2034.
Later this year NASA will also launch the long-awaited $10bn James Webb space telescope, the largest and most powerful device of its kind ever attempted. James Webb will enable researchers to peer inside dust clouds to witness the birth of stars, and even look back across the gulf of time itself to the very origins of our universe. Like China, America is no stranger to the value of space science as propaganda. The Trump Administration’s Space Force initiative was calculated to send a militant message to international upstarts. And while the precise role of Space Force is unclear, its quasi-military status comes uncomfortably close to sabre-rattling in some observers’ eyes.
More benignly, NASA last year unveiled its so-called ‘Artemis Accords’, a proposed international agreement that seeks to divvy up territory and resources on the moon in a fair and transparent fashion. China, for its part, hasn’t signed on, with some in the Chinese media referring to the accords as driven by a ‘political agenda of moon colonisation.’ Dmitry Rogozin, who heads up Russia’s Roscomos space agency, described America’s initiation of the accords as akin to ‘an invasion’. Which leads us nicely to Russia. Until recently Russia was an indisputable world-leader in space, providing exclusive transport to the ISS and even collaborating with China on missions to Mars.
However, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has since shown it can do the ISS run, and for less outlay than the eye-watering $80 million dollar-a-seat fee charged to NASA by Roscosmos. In fact, a re-used Falcon 9 only costs Nasa $50 million And sadly Russia’s high-profile joint venture with China, hoping to get a rover to Mars some years ago, failed on the launch pad. Despite a hardening in terrestrial relations between Russia and America during recent years, over issues from the conflict in Syria to US election interference, the two nations have collaborated amicably when it comes to space. However, a newly energised NASA, spurred on by the Trump budget increase, and Russian space supremo Dmitry Rogozin’s griping over the Artemis accords, suggests a cooling of the entente.
Moreover, Russia still relies heavily on sluggishly-updated Soviet-era tech, leading to unreliability in its rocket program. There’s also corruption in its financial arrangements – note the scandal surrounding Russia’s ill-fated Vostochny launchpad in the far east of the country. So what is the current state of the space race? The US is undeniably the dominant player, with three times the orbital satellites, and by far the more ambitious, technically impressive mission portfolio. China may appear to be gaining, but in truth the country is working to its own methodical schedule, with no concrete desire to usurp or dominate space outside its own sphere of influence.
Still, China, it should be noted, has a budget that dwarfs anything the Soviet Union ever had at its disposal. Russia is barely in the race these days, with a noncommittal government and economic problems of its own to overcome. But even if there isn’t a race, per se, the technologies that are being developed to drive the next wave of exploration should energise everybody. Whether or not one nation succeeds in eclipsing the other. What do you think? Is competition essential to spur on real progress? What upcoming mission are you most excited about? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to subscribe for more out of this world tech content.
Some Post Suggestion