Is there really a “Space Race?” (cue “Chariots of Fire”)


“there can be only one?”

There are headlines so full of assumptions, you sometimes have to take a step back, and think long and hard about the “angle” of the article.  In this instance, I’m referring to The Age, an Australian newspaper with an article, dated November 9, headlined “China to win space race unless NASA funding changes, US told.”  The angle, well, that would be the attempt to whip up some emotional reactions.  First reaction, the fear of China and its space activities (which I admit, look a little devious), and the second, a lack of NASA funding will continue to keep the United States at a disadvantage in space, especially against China.  Phooey!

So, let’s all agree The Age’s headline is at least as terrible as my most amateurish attempts to headline my posts.  The Age’s source is a Houston Chronicle article, posted November 6 by Eric Berger, who is the paper’s science writer.   The Chronicle’s headline is different from The Age’s, but the article’s substance is the same:  there is somehow a competition between the two countries, the USA and China, in which there can only be one winner.

The real space race

Let’s take this premise and just dissect it a little.  We will focus on the whole concept of a “space race.”  There has been a Space Race.  According to my memory and Wikipedia, this was the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to gain the upper hand in space.  But this series of national one-upsmanship started in the 1950’s and ended in the 1970’s.  If a nation could launch, orbit, explore planets, etc., there was a certain prestige and technical prowess associated with those activities.

Also, please keep in mind, part of that technical prowess was the alternative abilities each technology could be used for to inflict harm on other nations.  For example, if you could launch a beeping satellite, monkey, or a man into orbit, just how much easier is it to launch a nuclear missile into someone else’s territory?  If the man or monkey survives re-entry, then perhaps that nation also can make weapons to survive a re-entry through the atmosphere.  Get the picture?  So, it wasn’t just a competition, but also a demonstration of power projection.

So what’s going on?

Not to say China isn’t attempting to demonstrate its power.  And not to say China isn’t going for prestige and acquiring chops for technical prowess.  It’s obvious they are very committed to projecting their power into space.  I’ve written about and re-posted articles regarding new potential Chinese “stealth” and “trojan” satellites. But it’s hard to start a race if other nations don’t even know they are part of one.  What is the competition really about, too, if there is one?

China doesn’t seem to have the geo-political agenda the Soviets did.  They seem, in some ways, better at being Americans, than Americans.  They are great at copying and improving on technologies and ideas.  They seem to have great motivations in place to make things better.  They are not afraid to take risks and build new things.  I’m not saying it’s a paradise for you or me (or them), but things are happening over there.

And while some people look at all the launch and space activities through US-centric goggles, it would be well to consider how India’s space activities are also pushing China to become dominant in space.  The two nations have been historical antagonists for a very long time.  If a race is occurring, it might be between China and India.

Satellite supremacy, by the numbers

And there’s also quantity and history against this “race,” just using numbers of satellites.  At current count, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, there are about 1084 man-made satellites orbiting the Earth (not counting all the junk).  The three nations with the most satellites in orbit are:  the United States with 461, Russia with 110, and China with 107.  Note, they didn’t count up European, Indian, and other nations’ space activities, which are small compared to the top three.

So China is three satellites shy of overtaking the current second-place holder, Russia.  There are, unfortunately, no reliable sources for the number of commercial, government and military satellites the Chinese have of those 107.  The US, on the other hand, has some good numbers.  US military satellites alone number 134.  Government (NASA, etc.) “only” bring another 115 satellites to the table.  Then commercial satellites, coming from companies like DigitalGlobe, Intelsat, Dish, etc, nearly double those numbers with 205 more satellites.  NASA seems to be doing just fine with the “minimal” funding it’s received so far, but the commercial sector seems to be flourishing in comparison.

And the commercial satellites are an even more intriguing part of this puzzle, because websites like shows a balance between US military and civil satellite launch numbers from 1980 until about 1997.  Then, with Iridium as a sort of harbinger of commercial launch activity and satellites, 9 times more civil satellites were sent into orbit than military.  That’s’ right, the military had nine satellites, but civil satellites numbered 81.  And civil launches have since outpaced military ones, maybe not as spectacularly as during 1997, but unequivocally so.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe this trend will not continue, which means China has a very long way to go with its current rate of satellite launches.

Some ponderables for you

So another few questions against the space race assumption are:  what part of the US satellite operators, launchers, explorers are “racing” against China?  Why would they be?  Is it our military vs. theirs in space?  Is it NASA vs. their China National Space Administration?  I’m not sure they even have a commercial space sector just yet.  Also, what is the standard for “winning” this purported space race between the US and China?  A space station?  The Chronicle’s posting seems to imply space stations, and perhaps research, as the standard for winning, but space is so much bigger than satellites and stations.  There seems to be a lot of different ways to be successful in space.  If a motivated competitor is helping push humanity out there, shouldn’t there be some pride in those actions for everyone on Earth?  The biggest question, though, is why does there seem to be a campaign to paint China as a nemesis?  Especially in space?

In the end, I get a little hopeful and naive about the whole “space race” thing.  I think any nation that has the guts to commit resources and people to join the “space fraternity” deserves some respect.  It will also do nothing but add to what is being learned about space.  Because it is a competition, but not a race.  And competition is good, right?  Do we need to be concerned about China?  Yes, in the sense that it’s good to keep an eye on their activities and learn from them (as they have from us).  Does increased NASA funding help monitor Chinese space activities?  No, not really (but it does help keep government civilians and lucrative contracts in place).

Thank goodness we’re not relying only on NASA funding for the US future in space (even though we’re “told” we are).  I think companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and DigitalGlobe would probably just ignore such nonsensical statements, but I couldn’t.

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