AMAC Exclusive by Shane Harris
The United States is losing the new space race – but it looks like someone forgot to tell Joe Biden.
Late last month, China announced that it plans to send a crewed mission to Mars as soon as 2033, followed up by more manned missions in 2035, 2037, and 2041. China also said it intends to build a base on Mars to extract resources and shuttle them back to Earth.
In addition to a potential Martian base, China is eyeing a permanent presence on the south pole of the Moon and has already sent Chinese taikonauts to its unfinished space station, raising the alarming specter of a network of Chinese outposts across the solar system.
China’s growing presence in space has caused concern among many scientists, who fear that the United States is in danger of losing its status as the world’s leading explorer of the cosmos. David Burbach, an associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, recently told Space.com that “China is quickly catching up to become a very serious player in deep space exploration.” Even some members of the Biden administration have sounded the alarm, with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson saying that China is a “very aggressive competitor” in space.
President Biden himself, however, has shown no indication that he or any of his top advisors view U.S. leadership in space and competition with China as a top priority. Instead, Biden’s space policy has largely consisted of lip service to popular Trump-era achievements like the Space Force while quietly redirecting NASA and other space-related agencies to focus on climate change. Biden also indefinitely delayed the timeline set by President Trump for returning American astronauts to the moon, casting doubt on the future of the Artemis program.
Biden’s willingness to abdicate U.S. leadership in space to China is not altogether surprising given his past statements. During his failed 2008 presidential campaign, Biden said that he thought China should be a “full partner” with the United States in space exploration, rather than a “frustrated new entrant” that “has to catch up.” Just over a decade later, China has shown that it is more than capable of catching up to the United States, posing a very real threat to American interests in space.
While China’s ambitious plans may sound like the stuff of science fiction, the Chinese space agency has already achieved a series of successes in its space program in recent months. On July 4th of this year, Chinese taikonauts completed their first ever spacewalk. This past May, China successfully deployed a rover on the Red Planet, ending the United States’ distinction of being the only country to have successfully done so. Perhaps most alarmingly from a national security standpoint, intelligence reports from last September suggested that China may be secretly developing a reusable “space plane,” which, among other things, could be used to research hypersonic weapons.
In contrast to President Biden’s approach, the Trump administration presciently recognized the potential threat that China’s space program posed to the United States and took decisive action to set the country on track to regain leadership in space.
Shortly after taking office, President Trump reestablished the National Space Council, appointing Vice President Pence to head up the group. “We’re going to lead again,” Trump said at the time. “We’re opening up and we’re going to lead again like we never led before… The next great American frontier is space.”
At the direction of the Council, NASA accelerated its timeline to return astronauts to the Moon and began preparations for a manned mission to Mars. During a rousing speech at a meeting of the Council in 2019, Vice President Pence issued a warning about China’s lunar ambitions, saying that China is trying “to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s spacefaring nation.”
In recognition of the power of American industry, the Trump administration also forged landmark relationships with private companies, opening the door for a new chapter in space exploration. In May of last year, with President Trump in attendance, a rocket developed and operated by SpaceX successfully launched NASA astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011.
President Trump also recognized that, beyond merely damaging national pride, ceding leadership in space to China could have dire consequences for U.S. national security. China has made no secret of the relationship between its space program and military, as both are under the direct control of the People’s Liberation Army. When Trump officially unveiled the Space Force in 2019, he specifically mentioned that China “started off a lot sooner than us” as an impetus for the creation of the new military command.
Under President Trump’s leadership, NASA also led the way in updating decades-old international law governing the use of outer space by introducing the landmark Artemis Accords, which promise to promote “sustainable and beneficial use of space for all humankind.” Eight spacefaring countries, including the United States, have signed the Accords so far, but it is currently unclear if President Biden plans to move forward with Trump’s framework for the agreement. China has so far yet to sign.
At a time when domestic crises like rising crime rates and runaway inflation dominate headlines, scientific advancement and space exploration often take a back seat in the public conscious. But Americans should not forget that it was victory in the first space race in the 1960s and 70s which helped speed the downfall of the Soviet Union and secure American military and economic preeminence in the decades since. President Trump recognized this, understanding that American leadership in all areas of global competition, including space exploration, is necessary to ensure the country’s increasingly tenuous status as the world’s single great power. Winning the next space race would require Biden to heed that lesson and follow Trump’s example, rather than continue the placid complacency he has shown thus far.