China, the US and that 21st century space race

Funding and a network of partners have left the United States more than a lunar lander ahead of its rival

Headlines proclaiming the rise of a new “space race” between Washington and Beijing have become common in recent years.

Experts have pointed to China’s rapid advancements in space as evidence of an emerging landscape where it is directly competing with the United States for supremacy.

This idea of a race between two superpowers is convincing given the broader narrative of China’s rise, but how accurate is it? Hard data paints a much more complex picture.

At least for now, the reality looks more like what I call a complex hegemony. One nation, the US, is still dominating in key space capabilities, and this lead is further amplified by a strong network of partners.

Calling the current situation a race implies that Washington and Beijing have roughly equal capabilities. But in several key areas, the US is far ahead not only of China but of all other spacefaring states combined.

It starts with spending. In 2021, the US space budget was roughly US$59.8 billion compared to China’s $16.18 billion during the same year.

The US also leads significantly in the number of active satellites. Currently, there are 5,465 total operational satellites in orbit around Earth. The US operates 3,433, or 63%, compared to China’s 541.

Launch sites

Similarly, the US has more active spaceports. With seven operational launch sites at home and abroad and at least 13 additional spaceports in development, the US has more options to launch payloads into various orbits.

In contrast, China has only four operational spaceports with two more planned, all located within its own territory.

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

In 2021, for instance, China attempted 55 orbital launches, four more than 51 for the US. The total numbers may be similar, but the rockets carried very different payloads into orbit.

The vast majority, or 84%, of Chinese launches, had government or military payloads intended mostly for electronic intelligence and optical imaging. Meanwhile, in the US, 61% of launches were for nonmilitary, academic, or commercial use.

China’s Long March rocket. Photo: CNSA / Xinhua

Space stations are another area where there are important differences hiding beneath the surface. Since the 1990s, the US has worked with 14 other nations, including Russia, to operate the International Space Station.

The ISS is quite large, with 16 modules, and has fueled technological and scientific breakthroughs. But the ISS is now 24 years old, and participating nations are planning to retire it in 2030.

The Chinese Tiangong space station is the new kid on the block. Construction was only completed in late 2022, and it is much smaller – with only three modules.

China has built and launched all of the different parts and remains the sole operator of the station, despite having invited others to join.

Beijing is undoubtedly expanding its capabilities, and in a report published in August 2022, the Pentagon predicted that China would surpass the US in space as early as 2045. But it is unlikely that the US will remain stagnant as it continues to increase funding.

A major point of difference between the two space powers is the nature and number of international collaborations.

Moon surface

For decades, NASA has been fruitfully cultivating international and commercial partnerships in everything from developing specific technologies to flying humans into space.

Washington has also 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 – most notably Russia and members of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, including Iran, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey. China’s collaborators are, however, fewer in number and have far less developed capabilities.

Efforts to return to the surface of the Moon highlight this difference in ally support and synergy. Both the US and China have plans to send people to the lunar surface and establish bases there in the near future.

These competing aims are often cited as evidence of the space race, but they are very different in terms of partnerships and scope.

In 2019, Russia and China agreed to jointly go to the Moon by 2028. Russia is contributing its lunar landers and Oryol orbiters, while China is improving its Chang’e robotic spacecraft.

China’s Tiangong space station. Image: China Manned Space Agency

Their future International Lunar Research Station is “open to all interested parties and international partners,” but, to date, no additional countries have committed to the Chinese and Russian effort.

In contrast, since 2020, 24 nations have joined the US-led Artemis Accords. This international agreement outlines shared principles of cooperation for future space activity. The program aims to return people to the Moon by 2025 and establish a base and space station soon after.

In addition to broad international participation, the Artemis Program has contracted a staggering number of private companies to develop a range of technologies – from lunar landers to construction methods and more.

While China may seem like the main competitor, other countries have capabilities and aspirations that rival those of Beijing.

India spends billions on space and plans to return to the Moon, possibly with Japan, in the near future. South Korea, Israel, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Germany and the European Union are also planning independent lunar missions.

Harsh environment

Japan has developed impressive technological space capabilities. They include rendezvous proximity programs to send a spacecraft to an asteroid and bring samples back to Earth. That sort of technology rivals and even surpasses China’s high-tech.

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 a harsh environment.

I believe it is not surprising that, despite its decisive lead, the US has partnered with others to go to the Moon and beyond. China is doing the same but on a smaller scale.

The picture that emerges is not of a “race” but of a complex system with Washington as a leader working closely with an extensive network of partners.

Svetla Ben-Itzhak is an Assistant Professor of Space and International Relations at Air University in the United States.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.