In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States and the then-Soviet Union were engaged in a space race (the subject of the short documentary The Space Race, now streaming on Peacock) and winning it would require putting humans on the surface of the Moon. The race ostensibly ended in June of 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down at the Sea of Tranquility.
In turns out the race never really ended, though; it just entered a new leg, and, like the proverbial arrogant hare, we may have been caught sleeping. The tortoise in this story isn’t Russia, it’s China, according to a recent statement by NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
“It is a fact: we’re in a space race. And it is true that we better watch out that they don’t get to a place on the Moon under the guise of scientific research. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory,’” Nelson said, in an interview with Politico.
China’s space program only kicked into gear in 1986, more than a decade after the last Apollo mission wrapped up, but they’ve made incredible strides in a comparatively short time. As is often the case with space exploration, their early efforts were mired in disaster. Rockets failed over and again, with one disaster killing civilians when a rocket flew off course and exploded 22 seconds after launch. But those days appear to be behind them.
Over the last couple of decades, China has launched crafts to the Moon and Mars, and spun up a taikonaut program. Then, in May 2021, they launched the Tianhhe, the first module for their Tiangong space station. Wentian, the second module launched four months later, and a third module dubbed Mengtian launched on Halloween 2022. A fourth module is planned for this year, but the station is already in operation and crewed.
Yang Yuguang, a senior space industry observer in Beijing and vice chair of the International Astronautical Federation's space transportation committee responded to Nelson’s comment via state media, "If some people are so fond of a space race, then it is their own space race, and we will not get involved. In terms of Moon landing, it is our business to decide when we will send our astronauts there, and it is no one else's business. And when others will land their people on the moon is none of China's business."
Yang also took a moment for a jab at Nelson personally, "Nelson seems to enjoy his personal hobby of sensationalizing 'China's threat in space'. I don't know the exact reasons behind his move, but I am convinced that it is largely related to money, or more specifically, his struggle for more funds to his agency," Yang said.
Photo: gremlin/Getty Images
The name Tiangong means Heavenly Palace, which is as good a name for a space station as we’ve ever heard. It makes China only the third nation, following Russia and the United States, to construct and maintain a semi-permanent station in low-Earth orbit.
Unlike the International Space Station — which is an international collaboration between more than a dozen nations — this new station is a clubhouse all their own. It has a planned 15 year life with two six-month crewed missions and two supply runs scheduled each year. They’ve also got some interesting experiments planned, including figuring out if monkeys can get busy and reproduce in microgravity, which sounds silly but is probably an important line of research if we want to live off planet long-term (like we'll see scarily played out on Dean Devlin's upcoming SYFY series, The Ark).
You might wonder why China doesn’t just jump in on the ISS and join the international space party, but there’s a reason for that. In the more than 20 year history of the ISS, no Chinese taikonaut has even been aboard the station and none ever will. That’s due to a 2011 law passed by Congress which bars NASA from collaborating with China, citing human rights violations and national security concerns.
There are some concerns — whether they are warranted or not — that China will attempt to achieve and maintain supremacy on the Moon and in space, giving them the ultimate high ground. Space is ostensibly a common ground, shared by everyone and owned by no one. Just take a look at the plaque left on the Moon during Apollo 11. The dream of space exploration is one of cooperation and the peaceful pursuit of knowledge without the political baggage we carry around down here on the ground.
Still, it’s impossible to divorce space exploration from its more violent counterpart. The same technologies which can lift spacecrafts or people off the planet’s surface and into the cosmos can also launch missiles. It’s no secret that the original space race was a thinly veiled arms race, a way to demonstrate in broad daylight our technological superiority on the world stage. So, it’s hard not to make similar associations today.
So far, everyone has held to the agreements made in the 1976 Outer Space Treaty, but it's easy to make promises that space is for everyone when no one is really capable of claiming territory off world. With the recent success of Artemis I and the impressive space-based activities of other nations including China, the pump feels primed for humanity to take to the stars for real. When we do, those promises of cooperation will be put to the test.
As noted by Time, if we want space to a be a place of cooperation, free from the borders which so often define us at home — and considering the challenges of space exploration, cooperation is the smart move — then barring Chinese taikonauts from the International Space Station feels like a weird decision. Instead, we’ve both locked our doors and are staring at one another through pulled curtains from across the figurative street. It’s no wonder there’s a certain amount of animosity or distrust.
In addition to their station, China has lunar plans which closely mirror that of NASA's Artemis program. They intend to land taikonauts on the lunar surface before the end of the decade, and they’re targeting some of the same sites as we are, on the lunar South Pole.
"We've chosen the South Pole as the location of our future research station, and that means we will deploy our probes there. But that should not be translated into 'Chinese occupation' of the region. As long as your spacecraft will not affect the safety of ours, you can place them anywhere you wish, but if you deliberately land a spacecraft very close to ours and its engines' blaze damages our equipment, then such acts are nothing but provocations," Yang said.
Despite a delayed start, China is making steady progress on their space goals and they're poised to catch up relatively soon. According to a report from the Pentagon, it’s estimated the Chinese space program could surpass the United States as soon as 2045.
“I think it's entirely possible they could catch up and surpass us, absolutely. The progress they've made has been stunning, stunningly fast,” said director of staff of the U.S. Space Force, Nina Armagno, via Reuters.
So, are the United States and China engaged in a space race or not? It seems to depend on who you ask and whether or not you trust their motivations. Perhaps we are in a race, but it is necessarily three-legged; those tend to work better when everyone is running together.
Looking for more space adventures? Check out Space: 1999, streaming now on Peacock!