China Isn't Winning the Race for Space

Even as NASA stumbles, private U.S. companies are taking the lead in exploration.

China's first cargo spacecraft.

Photographer: VCG/Getty Images

By the middle of the century, nuclear-powered Chinese shuttles will regularly ply interplanetary space, carrying workers between mining colonies on distant planets and asteroids. If that, like much else published on the front page of the People's Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party, sounds like propaganda, remember that China has in barely two decades built up what's arguably the world's second-most-advanced space program, after America's. U.S. strategists warn that Chinese progress in space could soon threaten U.S. military superiority globally.

It's important to remember something else important, too, though. When it comes to the commercial future of outer space, China isn't just competing against the U.S. or Russian government. The real race is against nimble private companies like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Blue Origin LLC -- and there, China's advantages are far less evident.

It's true that by comparison to China, the U.S. space program appears to have stagnated. Americans haven't left low-Earth orbit since the last moon landing in 1972. The International Space Station -- history's most expensive scientific instrument -- is underutilized, and presidential plans to return to the moon have faltered over the last two decades. Worse yet, NASA's current effort to build a new rocket and crew module to send Americans beyond Earth orbit is years late, over budget and testing the patience of key supporters in Congress.

Meanwhile, in 2003, China became just the third nation to launch a human into space on its own rocket. It's operated a small space station and engineered a robotic landing on the moon. Within its sights are even more ambitious goals, including a mission to retrieve and return lunar samples, as well as the construction and operation of a manned space station. If the U.S.-led ISS isn't replaced or extended beyond 2024 (there are no current plans to do so), the Chinese orbiter would be humanity's sole space outpost.

Yet, thus far China's centrally planned and military-centered space program has only replicated achievements made decades ago by other national space programs. The country appears to be following the template set by NASA starting in the 1950s, whereby simple human space flight leads to the establishment of a lunar program and an eventual space station. Even China's boldest initiative -- developing those nuclear rocket engines for interplanetary space shuttles -- isn't a new idea. From 1955 to 1972, the U.S. conducted its own nuclear rocket research, which Congress canceled in 1973 over cost concerns.

Today, the most innovative research into space travel has shifted to the private sector, especially in the U.S. SpaceX's commercial rockets have not only cut the cost of launching into Earth orbit. They're precursors to bigger rockets the company hopes will send humans to Mars before the end of the 2020s, long before China's state-funded program achieves the same.

Likewise, just last month, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin successfully tested a new rocket engine that could help establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface starting in 2020 -- the year that China targets "parity" with U.S. rocket technology. And privately held Bigelow Aerospace LLC is planning to put an inflatable space habitat into orbit around the moon within five years.

Notably, these private-sector accomplishments are being made well ahead of NASA's long-term planning (insofar as the planning exists) and below NASA's budgets. According to one notorious NASA study, it would've cost the agency between $1.7 billion and $4 billion to develop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX did it for $390 million.

Is there any reason to believe that the China National Space Administration is any more efficient than NASA, the European Space Agency or other national space programs? A lack of transparency makes it difficult to judge its effectiveness, especially with budgets. But its development path hints at a conservative mindset, while its recent focus on unattainable benchmarks like matching U.S. rocket technology by 2020 seems to be a sign of the kinds of political pressures that divert resources from their best possible use.

The Chinese government isn't unaware that the private space sector has advantages over state-run space agencies. In recent years several companies, all with deep ties to China's space and military authorities, have been allowed to set up operations. But China's space agency is unlikely to tolerate much competition from these upstarts. And already established private space companies like SpaceX will be well past Earth orbit before either China's government or its private companies make their first forays that far. In the race for space, the U.S. may yet prevail.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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