China is serious about space exploration and is using massive investment in its space industry to get there. The recent lunar landing on the dark side of the Moon by a robot from Beijing should be a wakeup call for American and Western leaders; the militarization of the last frontier, and the mercantilization of space has begun.
The space industry has seen rapid change over the last several decades. The American government’s shift from public funding to the development of the private space sector has seen companies such as SpaceX rapidly gain market share. The losers have been the Russians. Never short on technical knowhow, Moscow has lagged due to mismanagement and lack of investment. While SpaceX has become the market leader in commercial satellite launches, Russia has seen its market share cut in half and its dominance shredded by American competition. This has further reduced the rubles available or Moscow’s disintegrating launch pads.
China’s share of investment in the space sector has gone from zero to 3% in 3 years, according to CNBC. This is a huge lift in yuan available for Chinese scientists and engineers. The Moon landing is the proof in the pudding. This year, the Chinese company Land Space will put ten satellites into orbit. However, their payload capability is still one fifth of SpaceX’s Falcon heavy lift rocket.
The lunar landing by the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) is the first in a long line of planned missions for an eventual sustained presence on the Moon. NASA sees this capability as a gateway step to the colonization of Mars, described CNBC.
The stakes are huge. Natural resources and advanced military capabilities are available to the highest bidder; it is first come first serve. Asteroid mining and other techniques could open the door to vast, yet unknown, resources.
President Trump’s ‘space force’ is a visionary step to try and confront these issues. Unfortunately, the inertia in the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon is reminiscent of General Billy Mitchell’s attempts in the early twentieth century to convince the American military brass of the coming pre-eminence of air power and the obsolescence of large naval gunboats.
Whether or not American leadership can rise to China’s challenge is yet to be seen.