We’ve got a new space race on our hands, and instead of competing as we should, we’re spacing out.
The Trump administration is doing an excellent job of utilizing statutory remedies to temper China’s decades-long economic aggression against the United States. But there is another important economic and global security issue that has gone almost entirely under the radar of both bureaucrats and most reporters: China’s race for global space domination.
According to Richard Fisher, an expert in China’s military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, the country is aiming “to achieve control of low earth orbit in order to defeat the United States on Earth.” Last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein added context for Mr. Fisher’s concerns, stating he “believe[s] we’re going to be fighting from space in a matter of years” and that we “must lead [the] joint war fighting in this new contested domain.”
China has a clear plan to achieve its objectives. Although the U.S. currently has a bigger space budget, estimates are that China intends to triple its space budget, could soon surpass the U.S. in research and development spending, has several private-sector rocket start-ups and is on-par with the U.S. and Russia in successful space launches.
This ebbing of our competitive edge has prompted some leaders in the Air Force to criticize our space policy in recent years. According to Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, “China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space” while we’re meandering along on an unacceptable 50-year journey.
Thwarting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s goal of space dominance starts with making it a priority. President John F. Kennedy demonstrated how policymakers can get these issues on the public’s radar and create national momentum behind them. It requires bold vision from President Trump and bipartisan leadership from his administration and Congress to beat China in space.
As the Cold War was starting to heat up, the Soviet Union used an ICBM to launch the Sputnik satellite into orbit. Stunned by Moscow’s technological achievement, America’s leaders acted swiftly to surpass it. President Dwight Eisenhower created NASA, as well as military-oriented space programs. President Kennedy followed up by calling for America to land a man on the moon.
Just eight years after Mr. Kennedy’s historic speech, Neil Armstrong took his famous stroll. We won the space race and stomped much of the Soviets’ brow-raising military ambitions away in one fell swoop.
Making the mission of stopping China a priority is the critical first step, but to win this battle our leaders must also value successful technologies above parochial and political considerations.
Over the past half-decade, the U.S. defense industry has received an influx of new space contractors that have, in many cases, provided extraordinary 21st century innovation. Their entrance into the marketplace was long overdue, as public-private partnerships can be immensely valuable, particularly in an arena as vast, complicated and expensive as space technology.
When these companies are up to the tasks at hand, everyone benefits. But when they are not, public-sector promotion of these companies should not take precedence over the critical mission itself.
Current leaders should have learned this lesson through the Obama administration’s over-utilization of SpaceX, a promising but still blossoming venture founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The demands seem to have exceeded the fledgling company’s capacity, and as a result it has suffered several costly failures. A March 2018 public summary report from NASA, as well as reports from the Defense Department’s Inspector General and NASA’s Aerospace Advisory Panel, have highlighted the considerable quality control issues with which the company is currently contending.
And yet, rather than requiring SpaceX to mature and improve, government bureaucrats recently awarded the company another nearly $300 million contract to launch a military GPS satellite into space. Taxpayers may have liked to have seen a greater track record of success before having another quarter of a billion dollars committed.
That is not to say that our political leaders should be left with only old-school options. A number of companies, including Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit and Stratolaunch Systems, are working furiously to perfect their products and join the fray. In the long run, the space program will undoubtedly benefit from the innovations generated by these companies. But in all cases, the government should prioritize success over sizzle and hold everyone — old and new — to the same high standards in order to meet the urgency of America’s mission.
President Trump has demonstrated that he is not afraid to take on the People’s Republic. He is the right leader at the right time to inspire another national movement to compete and win in space — one that will strike as much fear in the Chinese as the Apollo program did in the Soviets.
With national dedication, we won the space race in last century and can do it again in this one. Here’s hoping the White House chooses to do what’s hard, not what’s easy. Our national security depends on it.
• Monica Crowley is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.