Will global space science and adventure in the twenty-first century be defined by collaboration or competition? The answer may depend on how two space giants, the United States, and China, choose to interact in the next years.
By most measures, the United States remains the world leader in space, but China is steadily pursuing its very own ambitious space program, planning and executing a series of robotic interplanetary expeditions to places like the Jupiter and asteroid belt, and also a sample-return trip to Mars. China’s five-year plan for lunar research, which includes a recently announced agreement with Russia to jointly establish an International Lunar Research Station manned by human workers.
Meanwhile, China is quickly constructing its “Heavenly Palace,” which is a multimodular Tiangong space station, closer to Earth. A three-person crew lives in a core component of the station that is currently aloft and operational. A quick-fire deployment plan of more space explorers, supply ships, and add-on modules is expected to complete the completion of China’s orbital outpost by late next year. According to reports, the China Manned Space Agency has given provisional authorization to load the station with over 1,000 research experiments. It is also soliciting international engagement through the United Nations.
It remains to be seen how China’s space program, as well as the country’s collaborative ventures with Russia, would affect US space research goals. However, other analysts believe it is past time for the United States to seek common ground in the development of a more comprehensive multination space strategy.
For the time being, however, restricted legislation makes this easier to say than to achieve. Congress enacted a bill in 2011 that includes a clause dubbed as the Wolf Amendment. The Wolf Amendment, named for its author, then-Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, forbids NASA from utilizing federal funding to undertake direct, bilateral engagement with the Chinese government. Since, possible repeal of the clause has been a political issue, tossed between hawkish forces seeking to portray China as a growing adversary in space and less aggressive advocates hoping to gain from the country’s spectacular success in that field.
“I believe we will see a combination of collaboration and competition, most likely between two blocs: one headed by the United States and the other by China. And it isn’t always a terrible thing “Professor emeritus of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and founder and previous long-time director in charge of the Space Policy Institute of the university, John Logsdon, agrees. “After all, it was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that propelled us to the moon. The United States and China are competing for global leadership.”