The US and China are undeniably two of the world’s leading nations when it comes to space exploration. While the ongoing developments are generally referred as a “space race”, a closer examination reveals that the United States enjoys a significant lead over China in this arena, to the extent that it may not be entirely accurate to call it a race. In 2022, the United States allocated a staggering $69 billion for its space budget, with $43 billion dedicated to military-related space activities. In stark contrast, China’s total spending on both military and civilian space activities for the same year was $16 billion. This vast disparity in financial commitment underlines the fact that the United States is currently the undisputed leader in space exploration. The U.S. boasts 3,415 active satellites in space, while China is a distant second with just 535 active satellites. However, while these numbers may suggest a clear dominance, it is essential to recognize the intricate interplay between civilian and military space initiatives that may give China an edge in certain areas.
While the United States maintains a commanding position in the space arena, it’s important to understand that most of its space satellites in orbit or planned for launch serve civilian purposes. These technologies are often developed by for-profit civilian organizations. Conversely, in the case of China, the line between military and civilian space exploration is not as distinct. This distinction reflects China’s approach, which combines military and civilian space efforts more seamlessly. This approach allows China to leverage its military capabilities to support its civil space programs and vice versa, potentially conferring an advantage in certain aspects of space competition.
Both the United States and China have ambitious plans for lunar exploration. The United States unveiled its “Artemis Program” in 2020, with the goal of returning astronauts to the moon. This mission has two primary objectives: to explore the lunar surface for commercial purposes and to gather critical data on the effects of the space environment on human health during extended lunar stays. This information is essential for NASA’s planned Mars mission, set for the future. Meanwhile, China has been actively engaged in lunar exploration through its Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) since 2004, which has already resulted in five missions to the moon. Recently, China announced its intentions to establish a research station and an operational moon base by 2050 for extended human habitation. Their immediate objective is to reach the moon’s south pole, where a critical resource for human survival is believed to be present: ice. Water extracted from this ice can serve multiple vital functions, including life support and fuel production.
A pivotal development in this space competition is India’s participation in the U.S.-led Artemis Accords. As the first and, so far, the only nation to successfully land a rover and research equipment at the moon’s south pole via Chandrayaan-3, India is poised to play a pivotal role in U.S. Artemis missions. Moreover, the United States has a history of collaborating with international partners, including the European Space Agency. These collaborations serve as a force multiplier, giving the United States a significant advantage over China, particularly in lunar exploration missions. NASA is confident that the U.S. will beat China to the moon, and this first-mover advantage will be crucial for securing access to resource-rich lunar spots, thereby positioning the United States for long-term success in space exploration. But they are cautious about Chinese growth in the space domain at the same time.
China, however, is actively building its network of partners for lunar exploration. Nations like Russia, Venezuela, South Africa, Pakistan, and Belarus have joined the program. While Russia, as China’s most experienced partner, has historically demonstrated capabilities in space missions, it has not displayed the epitome of its Cold War era performance in space in the last few years. This implies that China’s current partners may not be at par with the technical capabilities the United States has fostered over the past several decades. China is aware of this fact and has been actively working to enhance the capacity of its partners. Initiatives like the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), established in 2005, provide opportunities for member states to receive training and expand their knowledge base, thereby fostering collaboration among professionals of the field from diverse ethnic and geographic backgrounds.
As of now, the United States not only enjoys technological superiority thanks to its first-mover advantage but has also extended its technical capabilities through strong partnerships with countries worldwide. This global network of collaborators, including India and the European Space Agency, is a testament to the United States’ ability to forge alliances and leverage its collective strengths. This intricate web of partnerships provides the United States with a clear edge over China in the ongoing space race, particularly in the competition for lunar dominance.
While the United States may currently have the advantage in the space competition against China, it is essential to understand that this is a dynamic race. China’s growing network of international partners and its more integrated approach to combining civilian and military space activities present formidable challenges to the United States’ dominance. As the world watches this race unfold, the outcome remains uncertain, and the competition in space exploration is far from over.