The new space race between China and the USA

The new space race between China and the USA. By Glenn Reynolds.

In the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union waged a “space race” to the Moon. … The United States won fairly handily, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag solidly on luna firma.

After that things kind of died down. Apollo was a Democratic initiative, pushed by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Republican President Richard Nixon wasn’t as supportive, and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty had eliminated the prize by banning “national appropriation” of the Moon and other celestial bodies and by limiting (though not banning) the militarization of outer space.

The Soviet Union, crippled by communism, couldn’t really afford to compete anyway, and the US government preferred to put its money into social programs. We got Skylab and eventually the white-elephant Space Shuttle, but both the United States and the Soviets (later the Russians) settled into a somewhat boring routine in space.

That’s changed. A new rising power, China, is looking for places where it can outflank America. China has gone all-in for space, and it’s not shy about space militarization, either. China’s sometime-ally Russia is also trying harder, and the United States, despite the recent creation of the Space Force, is frankly behind. …

China’s Long March 5B rocket

China is researching how to build very large structures in space that could support solar-power beaming or military uses. Russia recently destroyed a satellite with an anti-satellite weapon in a demonstration of power that has created a debris cloud threatening the International Space Station, Starlink satellites and more. And both Russia and China are continuously attacking US satellites.

These are what are called “reversible” attacks: blinding satellites with laser beams, jamming radio frequencies and launching cyberattacks.

But both countries are also practicing “kinetic” attacks — attacks that would destroy satellites and spacecraft, as Russia did with that satellite. In an actual war, they’d want to blind US satellites and cripple US navigation and communications. (The Navy has gone back to teaching cadets how to navigate old-school using the stars just in case GPS goes out.) …

So what is the United States doing? Well, we’ve created the Space Force. A new bureaucracy generally acts energetic and creative for a decade or so before it ossifies (like NASA in the 1960s), so Space Force’s creation is an indication that the powers that be think we need that kind of energy and creativity in the coming decade. …

We have a huge asset in the form of SpaceX, a company that has lowered launch costs roughly 20-fold compared with the Space Shuttle and is trying to drop them even more with its new Starship spacecraft. And the vast constellations of Starlink satellites make interfering with communications harder.

SpaceX’s massive Starship test rocket, in Texas.

Elon Musk warns Starship engines could bankrupt SpaceX.

Responding [to] the leaked email on Twitter, Musk confirmed that — in certain circumstances — bankruptcy is indeed a possibility. “If a severe global recession were to dry up capital availability/liquidity while SpaceX was losing billions on Starlink & Starship, then bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible” Musk tweeted.