China Is Winning the 21st Century Space Race

March 31, 2016, 8:00 PM UTC
JIUQUAN, Oct. 26, 2015 -- A Long March-2D carrier rocket carrying the Tianhui-1C mapping satellite blasts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, Oct. 26, 2015. Designed by a subsidiary of the CASTC, Tianhui-1C is the third satellite in the Tianhui-1 series and will be used for scientific experiments, land resource surveys, mapping, crop yield estimation and disaster relief.(Xinhua/Yang Shiyao via Getty Images)
Photography by Xinhua News Agency Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

At a cost of more than $150 billion, the International Space Station (ISS) is the most expensive object ever built. This price tag is more than double thecombined costs of China’s Three Gorges Dam, Boston’s Big Dig, and theChunnel. But as noted by CNN, funding for the ISS may run out in the early 2020s.

That happens to be around the same time that the Chinese are expected to complete their own space station, potentially leaving the Asian power with the sole operating lab in the heavens. And given that Congress banned NASA from working bilaterally with anyone from the Chinese space program, it’s unclear if American astronauts will be welcome.

The Chinese space station is merely one part of the Middle Kingdom’s extraterrestrial ambitions. Tinkering in the heavens has emerged as an important plank of its geopolitical strategy. And if recent history is any guide, the Chinese are serious about their plans in space.

To begin, their program has already accomplished a great deal over the past few years. In 2013, China became the third nation—after the United States and the Soviet Union—to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon. In 2014, the country also sent a probe around the moon and back, the first such mission since the 1970s.

But China has even grander plans. These include a 2018 mission to send the first probe in history to land on the “dark side” of the moon, whose extraordinary geology is largely unexplored. Other plans aim to bring back lunar samples as well as to land humans on the surface of the moon. The country has Martian ambitions as well.

What are the Chinese doing? Why the increased focus on space and specifically the moon? I see several reasons.

First, China views space as a potentially game-changing source of energy security. Specifically, the moon has abundant supplies of helium-3, a light and non-radioactive fusion fuel that is virtually non-existent here on Earth. Because it lacks an atmosphere and has been bombarded by solar winds containing helium-3 for billions of years, the moon has massive volumes of the isotope. Some estimates suggest there are at least 1.1 million metric tons of helium-3 on the lunar surface, enough to power human energy needs for up to 10,000 years.

With one of the fastest-growing appetites for energy on the planet, the Chinese are highly aware that securing access to this other-wordly fuel would be a hugestrategic advantage. Interestingly, Silicon Valley is also vying for the moon’s helium-3, spurred in part by the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE.

China is also pushing into the heavens to encourage technological developments. Just as America’s response to Sputnik fueled basic research and applied science, so might China channel its out-of-this-world ambitions into useful developments here on Earth. In fact, the chief scientist of China’s lunar exploration program cited the spillover benefits expected in information technology and materials science as a key motivator of the program.

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The Chinese are also keenly aware of the military significance of space. A 2015 US congressional report explained how “for China’s military, the use of space power can facilitate long-range strikes, guide munitions with precision, improve connectivity, and lead to greater jointness across its armed forces.” The document described a Chinese leadership that thinks that “space warfare is inevitable” and that China must dominate it. It’s worth noting China’s recent testing of anti-satellite weapons.

Finally, there is no question that Chinese success in space will be a source of pride and support rising nationalism. It will give China bragging rights and have a unifying influence on the country. In fact, Lieutenant General Zhang Yulindiscussed his space ambitions in terms of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

As we focus on China’s terrestrial power plays, from its trillion dollar Silk Road to its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, we must also watch the emerging geopolitics (“exopolitics”?) of outer space. Dismissing distant developments overhead may prove as detrimental, if not more so, than ignoring those in front of our noses.

Vikram Mansharamani is a Lecturer at Yale University in the Program on Ethics, Politics, & Economics. He is the author of BOOMBUSTOLOGY: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst (Wiley, 2011). Visit his website for more information or to subscribe to his mailing list. He can also be followed onTwitter or by liking his Page on Facebook.