Help Shape the Future of Space Exploration

Join The Planetary Society Now  arrow.png

Join our eNewsletter for updates & action alerts

    Please leave this field empty

Headshot of Louis Friedman

Op-Ed: The new space race: It's not just the U.S. and Russia anymore

There are now many space programs, both national and private. And that's good for science.

Posted by Louis D. Friedman

13-12-2013 12:05 CST

Topics: Chinese human spaceflight, personal stories, human spaceflight, International Space Station

This article was originally published as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on December 9.

Some 10 years ago, during testimony before Congress, I was asked by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), "Do you think we are in a space race with China?" I quickly answered "no" and proceeded to explain that, in my view, the concept of a space race represented old thinking. The modern way forward in space would be through international cooperation and coordination.

Today, I think my insistence that the space race was over was naive. There are now many space races. One is taking place between China and India, dramatized by India's launch of a Mars orbiter last month and China's launch this month of a lunar lander and rover. China also attempted a Mars orbiter last year, and India has already conducted a successful moon orbiter mission.

Japan is moving forward with lunar and asteroid missions, including one that will attempt to bring a second asteroid sample back to Earth next year. Europe, meanwhile, is planning a mission to rendezvous with a comet next year and two Mars missions this decade. Russia is tripling its space budget and has lunar and Mars missions lined up for this decade; Russia also recently started development on a new rocket for deep space missions.

And there are private entrants in the race as well, with ambitions to explore Mars or the moon, to observe asteroids, to commercially develop space resources and to promote space tourism.

One contest inherent in the new space race is between humans and robots. The competition is not merely about which is better suited to explore space but also about which is better able to excite future generations about the prospects for interacting with space. Although there is, of course, a role for both humans and robots, I am a human chauvinist: I want humans to explore other worlds (at least get to Mars) before we become satisfied with the advances of virtual world exploration of the universe by robots.

Politically, all these space races are important, with India, China and the United States all launching important missions in the second half of this year. The Indian Mars mission has generated controversy, with critics questioning why India should spend precious money on such an elitist venture.

Bijal Thakore, a young Indian female engineer and business consultant, effectively answered that question in a recent blog, pointing out: "The Indian space program is resolute as always in its purpose to contribute both toward economical and social development of its people. An emerging country like India needs to diversify its unique proposition as an international player within technology, and the space program has been an important tool ever since the vision of a future India was forged by its leaders at independence."

Several years ago in Beijing I happened to get into a conversation with a family while I was eating alone in a restaurant. After preliminary small talk, I asked the mother what she thought about the Chinese moon mission. She considered it a waste of money and human resources, she said, for a country with so much poverty. But her 12-year-old daughter disagreed: Space exploration was a great thing for China to be doing.

I agree. It's important to remember that the money spent on space is spent here on Earth, employing people in numerous fields. We don't explore Mars for the Martians; we do it because it makes us better: technically, scientifically, educationally, economically and even culturally.

Exploring space vastly broadens the horizons of children like that Chinese 12-year-old. It inspires us to solve problems and look beyond our Earthbound concerns to the vastness of what exists beyond our planet.

There will be those who want to focus narrowly on winning a space race with China. But we'll do much better if we compete and cooperate to advance a single goal: moving the planet forward in space. Doing so will take humans of all nationalities as well as robots; it will take private development and government ventures; it will take cooperating with other countries, while still trying to be the best.

Imagine inviting the Chinese to the International Space Station and using that as a springboard for sending humans into the solar system. Our space program then will be serving even a greater geopolitical purpose than it did with Apollo: creating a positive future for the world, with America leading by achievement.

See other posts from December 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Chinese human spaceflight, personal stories, human spaceflight, International Space Station


TimR: 12/13/2013 03:30 CST

During the Apollo era, the Space Race was clear to see but the race became more vague in decades that followed; primarily due to US/Western dominance. It has been both a race for social and economic dominance. For a decade, it was a race such as one sees in a 100 meter dash but today it is competition where World communications has opened everyone's playbook, where much of the needed technology is available to everyone. A great legacy of 21st Century Space Exploration shall be that cooperation trumps competition. The Apollo astronauts' view was of the whole Earth, a single community but we know that is not true to this day. However, one view of the emerging new generation of space explorers is that cooperation, alliances and multinational investments will be needed to take the next steps. So as we expand away from the Earth with greater sets of skills, we will do so in greater cooperation and consequently, the Earth that these missions leave behind will become more united.

Bob Ware: 12/14/2013 10:12 CST

The next step in space exploration is to share information to help as needed and assist in science sharing of what is learned as it is learned. Political differences need to be trashed as mankind matures in to a better society as envisioned in Star Trek. Congratulations to China for a great success so far and may their spacecraft hold up longer and better than they designed!

Messy: 12/15/2013 09:40 CST

There is NO space race. What China has done is to do something the Russians did back in 1971. We have the technology. Hell, we've sent better versions to Mars lots of times, as we all celebrate here. We were going to send a new Surveyor-type craft to the Moon, but Congress didn't feel like funding it. We're going to redo Apollo 3 this September and Apollo 8 in 2019, assuming we don't give up on it... again. We could probably send some back-up Mars rovers to the Moon RIGHT NOW, but we won't.

Kevin Nolan, TPS Coordinator, Ireland: 12/18/2013 12:40 CST

What you propose is laudable, but does China agree? If they don’t, such aspiration is void. There are concerns with many trends in space exploration. The Chinese citizen has no say in what the regime does in space – a military program. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX are not representative of the population at large. By contrast, past space activities - however flawed or political - were driven by the people. Most important, ordinary people have less say in the new approaches to space – a retrograde step. Meanwhile there are aspects to space exploration being largely ignored: 1) space exploration as a societal pursuit 2) the management of space for the future 3) ethical and environmental sensitivity when engaging Mars 4) the central importance of exploring Origins on Mars. I am personally optimistic about what Space Exploration can give to society – but I propose that the issues I raise are important and require far greater consideration before any meaningful global context for space exploration can be considered.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 12/18/2013 03:05 CST

"Europe, meanwhile, is planning a mission to rendezvous with a comet next year and two Mars missions this decade." Not really fair. US and EU planned cooperation on Mars exploration, before US backed out, with other nation's experiments to boot. ExoMars is now a joint EU/Russian mission instead.

Torbj??rn Larsson: 12/18/2013 03:12 CST

@Kevin Nolan: "The Chinese citizen has no say in what the regime does in space – a military program." Claims in need of reference; the last one looks erroneous. - China is not a democracy, but its citizens have some input on the society lately. (Protests and their results, say.) - Most of the China space program has civilian, even commercial use up front. "ethical and environmental sensitivity when engaging Mars". Claims in need of reference. - Why would ethics apply? Social morality is still mostly within our own species, with some signs of including husbanded species in an extended family. - Why would the martian environment be of concern for Earth?

Gabe Moretti: 12/24/2013 04:56 CST

What ever happened to the solar sail project? Your sentiments about international cooperation "feel" good, but with changing politics in Russia, we may never get a vector for our project. So we wait, possibly loosing the leadership in this very rpomising technology.

Leave a Comment:

You must be logged in to submit a comment. Log in now.
Facebook Twitter Email RSS AddThis

Blog Search

Planetary Defense

An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.


Featured Images

SpaceX CRS-8 landed booster
SES-10 static test fire
More Images

Featured Video

Class 9: Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune

Watch Now

Space in Images

Pretty pictures and
awe-inspiring science.

See More

Join The Planetary Society

Let’s explore the cosmos together!

Become a Member

Connect With Us

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more…
Continue the conversation with our online community!