New Cold War, New Space Race
If you have been half following the news the last few years, you may have noticed the US’s growing attrition with China. What used to be a very profitable outsourcing partnership quickly developed into one of the US’s greatest fears, and Trump’s America First policy set out to try to stop it in its tracks, unsuccessfully.
What we didn’t really expect, however, was that this economic war would also develop into a space race, much like the Cold War’s. It is logical, though: China is growing into a technological power, as Huawei’s ever expanding 5G technology clearly shows, and the country is also aiming for the stars.
Of course, although this space race is similar to the last one, in that it is a technological race, it also has many very prominent differences.
The main one is that the government agencies aren’t the main players here. NASA is not at the forefront of technological development anymore but has been delegated to mostly astronomical research. That is, developing and launching probes and satellites and sending manned research missions into the ISS.
The main players in the US are now private companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which receive a lot of private and public investment and have been very successful.
In China, however, the government is still on the forefront, mainly with the China National Space Agency (CNSA) and China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO), in partnership with many universities.
Although compared to the US, the Chinese space program is still in its infancy, the US has greater ambitions.
Command and conquer
During his term, Trump slowly increased his focus on space. While he initially just followed Obama’s last policies, at the end of his term he had created the United States Space Force increased focus on space research, and set the goals of creating a base of operations on the Moon, with a “permanent human presence”, and doing a manned mission to Mars.
While current international laws prohibit nations from considering celestial bodies or parts of them as their territory, this is something that may change by force, should the US actually develop a military presence in space. At least for now, it aims to do missions with commercial ends, such as extraction of raw materials, especially on the moon. But, of course, as the technology develops and the attrition goes on, priorities may change.
Another interesting aspect of the current space policy, and which gives even more “cold war” vibes, is that the US is aiming to create partnerships with similar-minded nations in order to strengthen their space program. The National Space Policy document explicitly states that such partnerships will be done with “like-minded international and private partners”. The world is slowly dividing into a “US-bloc” and a “China-bloc”, and space is the most likely battlefield for now.
This seems to be one of the ways the US has found to try to curb a bit China’s economic expansion, such as the partnerships with African countries, the Belt and Road Initiative (which has partners in all continents other than North America) and Huawei’s 5G expansion. These partnerships can be a way into getting access to advanced aerospace technology, and many nations may be interested in it, especially developed nations.
A new era for the US and the world
More than a new space race, for the US this new space policy is basically a reinterpretation of the old Manifest Destiny: America is putting its own territorial and economic interests ahead of everything else, and that means being the first to go into the final frontier and reap all of the benefits which that brings.
Meanwhile, here on Earth, we will be reaping all the benefits of that technological leap in the next few decades, just like before. The first space race gave us the internet, the GPS, and many other technological marvels that we use every day. Now, in the era of Industry 4.0, who knows what will happen.