The United States is in a titanic struggle with the People’s Republic of China for the dominance of space.
Although the Americans have been to the moon and sent multiple, advanced probes to the surface of Mars, since the end of the Cold War, U.S. space policy has languished in neutral. Due to this, new competitors, namely China, have arisen to challenge the dominance of the Americans in the ultimate strategic high ground of space.
China has grand ambitions for space. Not only does China plan on beating the Americans to the Martian surface by the end of the decade, but Beijing wants control of the vital orbits around the Earth. By controlling these orbits, China’s military would enjoy significant advantages over the American military. Beyond that, China plans on strip-mining the moon for valuable resources.
The Americans, though, have always had a silver bullet in its competition with China for space dominance: a vibrant and innovative private sector. Specifically, the growing number of private space start-ups, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Thanks to his reusable rocket design, Mr. Musk’s company has already cut down on launch costs by a staggering 40 percent. SpaceX insists that it can cut those costs down further. What’s more, SpaceX rockets are entirely indigenously produced. And as the ongoing race to Mars between the United States and China intensifies, Mr. Musk’s new deep space reusable rocket Starship, might just be the vehicle that gets American astronauts to Mars before China can get its taikonauts to the Red Planet.
Certainly, the Starship reusable rocket is unproven. In another America, this experimental craft would elicit wonder and its development would be encouraged. The Trump administration exhorted SpaceX to vigorously move ahead with its Starship program.
The United States, however, has a new president. And President Joe Biden is making his space policy preferences increasingly clear: America will remain grounded for the time being.
On Jan. 28, SpaceX was set to put its Starship rocket through another test in the blue skies above Texas. The objective of the test was to get the massive rocket up to 12.5 kilometers — about seven miles — above the Earth and then spin the giant rocket around so that it could make a vertical landing.
Sadly, the visionary goal of getting Americans to Mars first came crashing down when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which, under the Trump administration had allowed for SpaceX to conduct their important test flights, ordered Mr. Musk to cancel the Starship prototype test.
The FAA did not cite its reasoning behind ordering the cancellation of the launch. Many have speculated that the cancellation was brought about due to safety concerns. After all, in December 2020, SpaceX did a test of the experimental rocket. The Starship prototype made it to a height of 41,000 feet. Once it reoriented itself, in order to allow for the rocket to land vertically, the great silver spacecraft promptly did a bellyflop that ended in a massive explosion.
Despite this, SpaceX learned many valuable lessons from the December failure that were to be applied to the Starship launch in January. In science, the only lasting failure occurs when one does not test a new idea or hypothesis. This axiom is especially true in the context of the new space race between the United States and China.
It’s likely that the FAA’s decision to cancel the launch is part of a wider Biden administration effort undo the Trump administration’s vibrant space policy. Plus, former President Trump’s space vision was explicitly aimed at countering advances made by China in space. It is unlikely that the Biden administration seeks to continue that policy, as the Biden team attempts to stabilize deteriorating relations with Beijing over the next few years.
Concern over Mr. Musk’s Martian intentions is likely another factor for the FAA’s cancellation of the Starship launch. Last year, Mr. Musk indicated that any future SpaceX Martian colony would not be “ruled by Earth-based laws.” The problem for Mr. Musk is that SpaceX has been awarded lucrative contracts by the Earth-based U.S. government. If SpaceX were to create a colony on Mars, because of the company’s contractual relationship with the U.S. government, Washington very much expects that colony to be an American endeavor.
Lastly, Mr. Musk has been publicly supportive of the recent “GameStonk” controversy. A group of anonymous, individual investors on Reddit decided to engage in a little activism by inflating the stock price of Gamestop, a video game retailer. Melvin Capital, a storied Wall Street investment firm, was forced into bankruptcy by this move (they took the other side of the bet, attempting to short the Gamestop stock).
The “GameStonk” event was so significant that the Biden administration is vowing to prevent something similar from happening again. Congress is even getting involved. Because of Mr. Musk’s prestige and his vocal support for the Redditors who helped to take down Melvin Capital, it is possible that the Biden administration was punishing Mr. Musk by canceling the Starship launch at the last minute.
It is not only Mr. Musk who suffers from the FAA’s cancellation of the SpaceX test flight. We, the American people — and the entire effort to beat China to Mars — suffer. The Biden administration’s decision to increase regulations on the private space launch services sector and slow down their operations, as evidenced by the recent Starship launch cancellation, will only help China in its ongoing mission to defeat America in the new space race.
• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower,” (Republic Book Publishers) available on Amazon. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon and via Clubhouse @wethebrandon.