Skip to main content

Are We Really in a New Space Race with China and Russia?

How do you make an ambitious goal and a speedy timeline seem worth tackling among a busy slate of jostling existential crises? Appeal to America's competitive spirit, apparently.

That's the current administration's apparent tactic, at any rate, as revealed by Vice President Mike Pence during a speech to a meeting of the National Space Council held on March 26. There, he unveiled the administration's new schedule for landing humans on the moon again — now pushed up from 2028 to 2024, just five years from now.

And he referenced Russian and Chinese activities in space and uttered those magic, rhyming words. "Make no mistake about it, we're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher," Pence said. He went on to detail two types of competitions that the administration argues are unfolding in the realm of human lunar spaceflight — international, with Pence citing China and Russia by name; and internal, with our own complacency.

Related: US Is in a New Space Race with China and Russia, VP Pence Says

On the international stage, Pence highlighted two potential opponents. "Last December [in fact, Jan. 2, 2019], China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon, and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world's pre-eminent spacefaring nation," Pence said. "And for more than seven years, without a viable human space launch program of our own, Russia has been charging the United States more than $80 million a seat every time an American astronaut travels to the International Space Station."

But neither country seems to be particularly interested in joining America in this race, space policy experts told Space.com. To be fair, the first space race was also not particularly consensually constructed. "We entered into a competition to get to the moon in the '60s without knowing what the Soviet Union was doing, and so we made up the fact that they could potentially build a moon rocket on the same time schedule as we did," John Logsdon, a space historian at The George Washington University, told Space.com. "It turned out they started two and a half years behind us and never had much of a chance."

No one to race

This time around, it seems unlikely the U.S. will attract any serious competition when it comes to putting humans on the moon for a very simple reason — Pence's highlighted competitors don't seem to have any interest in speeding toward that goal.

"The Russians don't have a stated public interest in going to the moon with human spaceflight," Wendy Whitman Cobb, a political scientist at Cameron University in Oklahoma, told Space.com. "[The Chinese] have taken a purposefully slow, methodical approach to spaceflight and for them, I think the motivations are more in the military and national prestige realms."

China is certainly interested in the moon, but its current timeline puts human landings sometime after 2030, slower even than NASA's timeline before this week's aggressive rescheduling. Right now, its human spaceflight aspirations are directed elsewhere: to a space station called Tiangong 3, the first module of which is due to launch within the next year or so.

"They're not exactly racing to the moon," Brian Weeden, director of program planning of Secure World Foundation, told Space.com. "I'm sure China is thinking about the moon and getting back there, but I have not seen any concrete plans with timelines and budgets to do so."

Where China is feeling the competitive drive, instead, comes in the military realm, Whitman Cobb said, and here's where the comparison to the Cold War space race makes sense. "Spaceflight is just a ballistic missile pointed in a different direction," she said. "There probably would not have been a space race if it hadn't been that we could use that as a peaceful demonstration of military capabilities."

But still, China isn't in a position to truly compete, Weeden said. "Pretty much everything they're doing are things the U.S. already has done in the past," he said. "China is still catching up."

And even if Russia wants to reprise its role in the Apollo-era space race, they're in a weak starting position. "I think that's a nonstarter in my view," Logsdon said of either country competing with the U.S. "The Russian space program is just in chaotic condition, they're in no shape to take on a major challenge."

Races closer to home

After referencing China and Russia, Pence highlighted the ways he believes a lack of urgency for a new moon landing among Americans in general and at NASA in particular is the real factor hobbling the next "giant leap."

And for Logsdon, that was the real takeaway from Pence's speech. "Well, are they really framing it as a race? I didn't hear a whole lot of that in what Pence had to say," he said. "I think it's more, this is taking too long on our own terms, not that we've got to go faster because we're racing somebody. … I think you have to pay kind of lip service to the fact that Russia and China also are interested in major space activities, but say it's really a challenge to us to do better."

For some, framing the increasingly aggressive lunar landing timeline on the international stage may be a tactic to encourage the government to fork over more money for the effort, according to Weeden. "There are certainly people who want people to think that there's a race," he said. "It's motivational, there's a strain of thinking that the only reason we were able to go to the moon in the first place was this competition with the Soviets."

Of course, there's another type of race on the horizon — the regular schedule of presidential elections. And here, the new target date of 2024 for this space race is striking. "It's the last year of the Trump administration, assuming he wins a second term," Whitman Cobb said. "That's one way to burnish your legacy."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.