By Taylor Marvin
Over at The Diplomat, Daryl Morini has a though provoking piece arguing that NASA’s dramatic Mars Science Laboratory mission foretells “the coming US-China space race.”
To be sure, high profile NASA successes carry a nationalistic subtext. A failure of the highly-public Curiosity lander, in the words of prominent Mars exploration expert Robert Zubrin as paraphrased by Sydney Morning Herald writer Michael Hanlon, “could have meant effectively an end to the US venturing into space for at least a generation, and the keys to the solar system would have been handed to the Chinese.”
Zubrin’s warning is certainly grim, but is wildly overblown. The loss of the Curiosity lander would have been a major blow to the American planetary exploration program. But handing “the keys of the solar system” to the Chinese?* Unlikely — aside from Curiosity, NASA and the European Space Agency currently have four operational orbiters or rovers studying Mars: the 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and the MER-B Opportunity rover. More importantly, this prediction underestimates just how important the trail-and-error experience is to successful space exploration, which China’s young space program lacks. China has never successfully dispatched an exploratory mission to Mars, and the recent launch failure of the joint Chinese-Russian Yinghuo-1/Fobos-Grunt probes reemphasizes how difficult these missions really are. We have every reason to expect Chinese exploratory successes in the future, but it’s worth remembering that the US and Russia’s dramatic successes in space are based on decades of painful but informative failures.
The Unites States has been dispatching missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, missions that have grown more complex and less failure-prone over time. It’s likely that NASA’s recent string of dramatic Mars successes is due to technical and managerial lessons learned during the agency’s equally dramatic — and humiliating — failures in 1998 and 1999. For example, investigations in the wake of the loss of the Mars Polar Lander related Deep Space 2 impactor found that NASA projects were consistently under-resourced and under-tested, and a 2001 internal audit reported that Mars programs conceived under the 1990s ‘Faster Better Cheaper’ cost-cutting mantra lacked “appropriate number of staff or competencies needed to effectively carry out its strategic goals and objectives”. Today’s NASA Mars probes, which have not experienced a major failure since 1999, benefit from this experience. Even if Curiosity had failed, it will take decades of Chinese space exploration for the PRC to build up the institutional knowledge and experience NASA benefits from.
More importantly, Morini argues that the success of Curiosity and China’s nascent space ambitions herald a new space race:
“This amazing feat in human space exploration is revealing of the geopolitical context back on Planet Earth. In particular, this event marks a milestone in the present trend of an expanding US-China rivalry, and a budding military-technological space race.”
The last space race put humans into space, and left footprints on the moon. America and China are beginning to militarily compete in space, but the term “space race”, with its grand historical allusions, poorly characterizes this rivalry. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the US-China geopolitical rivalry likely to dominate this century results in a space competition similar to the Cold War’s, for numerous reasons.
First off, the US-Soviet space race was enormously expensive. At its peak the Apollo moon program consumed 2.2 percent of federal outlays; while figures for the Soviets are hard to come by, a combination of chronic resource shortages in the Soviet space program and a tangled bureaucracy crippled the Russians’ moon shot despite the Soviets’ impressive engineering credentials. Uncrewed exploratory probes were also expensive, though of course paled in comparison to crewed space programs. The massive government pushes of the space race were only possible because the conflict between the US and USSR was so intense — remember, while American and the Soviet engineers were scrambling to put a man on the moon there was a distinct possibility that their two countries could blow each other to hell at any moment.
Curiosity on its way to Mars. USAF photo by George Roberts, via Wikimedia.
Fortunately, the rivalry between economically interdependent America and China is nowhere near as severe its Cold War predecessor, and has little prospect of becoming so. This makes it difficult to imagine America’s rivalry with China justifying massive space expenditures. Furthermore, the space race of the Cold War was a competition played for external audiences just as much as domestic consumption: both the US and USSR sought to demonstrate their system’s scientific and industrial superiority to non-aligned nations. Outside of the bipolar international structure of the Cold War, these audience considerations have less merit; Washington and Beijing alone will not dominate this century’s world affairs to the extent that the rivalry with Moscow did during the second half of the 20th.
The relatively balmy relations between Washington and Beijing make aggressive space expenditures unlikely. As I argued earlier this year [slightly edited for clarity]
“The Apollo program was an enormously expensive effort, costing $98 billion over 14 years. Yes, this expenditure is dwarfed by the US defense budget — in 1969 alone the US spent nearly $500 billion in 2009 dollars on military spending — but 2.2% of federal spending comes with large opportunity costs. Governments don’t spend these kinds of funds lightly, especially if there’s little apparent electoral benefit from massive space spending. The Apollo program only scraped above a 50 percent approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing, and without the external Soviet threat it’s unlikely that the massive space expenditure of the 1960s would have been possible.”
Without a dramatic, and unlikely, worsening in US-China relations it is difficult to imagine any political appetite for these kind of expenditures.
It’s also difficult to imagine the target of a US-China space race. Transient excitement over Curiosity aside, uncrewed space exploration just doesn’t capture the hearts of the world: few people will retell where they were when Curiosity landed to their children. To be sure, competition between the US and Soviet space programs included unmanned planetary exploration, but these probes were always a minor — and often publicly ignored — chapter in the space race. After all, while most Americans today can likely identify that the USSR launched the first man into orbit (hopefully!), few are aware of the Soviets’ impressive successes landing probes on the surface of Venus.
A return to the Moon is a natural target for a US-China space race. However, I’m not sure the Moon retains a powerful draw. Sending taikonauts to the Moon by 2030 is an official goal of the Chinese space program, but replicating an American achievement half a century old doesn’t exactly fit the dramatic definition of a space race. Even establishing a manned base on the moon, the eventual goal of the Chinese lunar program, is unlikely to stimulate a competing American base. A permanent human presence on the moon is of little scientific value and, contrary to many claims, would be of little use as a base for expeditions to Mars or other extraterrestrial targets. Similarly, mining operations on the Moon are likely decades away. China may go through with its lunar goals — though it’s worth remembering that very few grand long-term space goals articulated by any national space agencies ever progress beyond the paper stage — but it is unlikely that replicating the US lunar landing in grander form will motivate aggressive competing American space spending.
Mars, of course, is the logical target of a US-China space race; a crewed mission to Mars by either country would be a truly impressive accomplishment. But just as the technical difficulty of Apollo far surpassed those the earlier Vostok program faced, a crewed mission to Mars would be far more difficult, dangerous, and expensive than traveling to the Moon. A crewed Mars mission would require major advances in spacecraft and mission design, and keeping humans healthy during the isolated and radiation-heavy four to eight month (depending on the propulsion technology used) trip to the red planet is a daunting challenge. A crewed Mars program would require numerous heavy lift launches and establishing a comsat system around Mars, and more ambitious mission designs require advances in orbital construction. These difficulties do not mean that crewed missions to Mars are impossible, but it is worth noting that the Apollo program is not a good predictor of their cost or difficulty. Colonizing space — which Morini likens to the pre-WWI Scramble for Africa — is even more expensive, and technically challenging.
Secondly, the space race of the Cold War was not solely an exercise in peaceful competition. Instead, the space race was an organic outgrowth of the missile race between the US and USSR. As Greg Goebel’s extensive history of the space race emphasizes, early investment by Washington and Moscow in rocket technology was motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles; Sputnik, humanity’s first satellite, was launched almost as an afterthought. The real focus of both programs was fielding missiles capable of heavy throw weights, and later on developing rockets capable of putting heavy spy satellites in orbit. Of course, a rocket capable of carrying a heavy warhead across the world is not conceptional very different from one capable of lifting a civilian payload to orbit. While the extremely heavy-lift rockets of the later moon race had no connection to military use, they leveraged off technologies developed in the missile race — technologies like working solid and liquid fueled engines, staging, and ablative reentry heat shields all grew out of early ICBM design. It is doubtful that the Cold War space race would have taken off the way it did if the military enthusiasm for early rocket development didn’t guarantee funding for nascent space programs.
Does the current military rivalry between the US and China reflect this dynamic? Not really. The military already has ICBMs and spy satellites, and little motivation to invest in further innovative space projects, at least compared to the innovation of Cold War rocket development. The technological developments necessary for more ambitious US/Soviet space race-style exploration have no relevance to today’s militaries. If another true space race occurs, politicians must justify it entirely on civilian grounds.
Morini focuses on this military rivalry, cautioning against forgetting “the military significance of technological superiority in space in any modern war.” This is certainly true. China is heavily investing in anti-satellite weapons as part of its asymmetric area-denial/anti-access strategy, the US Air Force recently developed the impressive X-37 uncrewed spaceplane, there is the future possibility of the US and China competing to acquire the ability to mission-kill each other’s surveillance satellites, and a broad area maritime satellite surveillance capability is a requirement for China to operationally deploy its anti-ship ballistic missile capability. However, unlike during the Cold War this is a rivalry of deployment rather than innovation. The US and USSR both possessed rudimentary to advanced anti-satellite capabilities during the Cold War, though both sides avoided frequently demonstrating their capabilities for fear of creating dangerous orbital derbies. Current space militarization is more accurately characterized as expanding neglected existing capabilities than truly pushing the technical envelope. While the rivalry between the US and China could lead to fielding more comprehensive anti-satellite capabilities, it’s difficult to term this a “space race” — certainly when compared to the theatrics of the Cold War. While this may be a question of semantics, I have trouble believing that the public will acknowledge that competing surveillance and anti-satellite systems warrant the title.
If you define a space race as gradually improving space military capabilities, then yes, one is “now in full swing”. But the Space Race of the Cold War, where the US and USSR competed to match each others dramatic and daring exploration, is a memory and one’s that’s unlikely to soon be repeated.
*Note that these aren’t Zubrin’s direct words; I was unable to find the direct quote Hanlon paraphrases. Also note that Zubrin is a long-time advocate of crewed missions to Mars (check out his excellent book The Case for Mars), and certainly has an incentive to play up fears of a new space race.