Why the US Is Likely to Prevail in the Space Race with China

The free market is leading the way in American spaceflight, and that's its edge.

Many observers feel that China has been beating the United States in aerospace innovation for well over a decade, but 2019 just may be the year the US reasserts its leadership in space. If the federal government embraces an all-of-the-above approach by fostering a competitive atmosphere, America will win the space race. Free markets win when they are permitted to function and flourish.

America is reaching unprecedented heights in our innovative aerospace sector, mainly as a result of the industry’s highly competitive nature. However, even though the US is succeeding, other nations are not far behind. Having run up significant victories for decades, America has nevertheless struggled in recent years to maintain its lead due primarily to our misplaced priorities. Washington must retain the industry’s open marketplace and spirit of competition to ensure America can beat other nations in the coming space race.

China's Space Push

There is a reason for concern. This month, China successfully landed a rover on the dark side of the moon. Though this feat may have come generations after the US accomplished the unmatched achievement of putting a man on the moon, it is still an incredible technological undertaking. But China’s drive is prompted by more than just bragging rights. China appears to be establishing a permanent presence in space, gaining a foothold where there may be a paradigmatic shift of power in the next generation.

As always, there is a national security aspect lurking behind the curtain of scientific excitement regarding space. And have no doubt: China’s Communist Party is very interested in laying the basic claims to colonizing our moon. Such colonization is less about real estate for inhabitants and more about using the moon as a base to fuel missions and operations further into outer space.

The US sports a seemingly endless supply of new and established private companies that are helping America return to its greatness in space.

In 2019, however, there is a new, historic, competitive atmosphere in the US space industry. There are now dozens and dozens of new contractors that are all determined to achieve different objectives, as well as legacy contractors who continue to grow and innovate. There are new upstart companies like Rocket Lab that are working to compete against China’s competitive small satellite game.

Although steadily increasing in capabilities, the satellites are managing to shrink in size. The advantage of this is the ability to use smaller, less expensive rockets while limiting the chances of malfunctions and sabotage. Instead of just one large satellite like in the past, there can now be 60 smaller ones, with each one being more flexible and agile than ever before. From famous companies such as SpaceX to unheard-of startups, the American space technology environment is fertile with endless possibilities.

America's Edge

China is active in the niche space arena of microsatellites, with an eye to edge out the US, Japan, and Germany. The US, however, sports a seemingly endless supply of new and established private companies that are helping America return to its greatness in space. A space-business investment firm is tracking 150 small companies that are making progress in achieving America’s space goals by innovation through different means. As written in The New York Times, they include Vector Launch Inc, which has goals of mass production; Virgin Orbit, a product of the Richard Branson Empire; Astra Space Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up; and Relativity Space, which aims to 3-D print its rockets.

With all of this new competition and innovation, 2019 can be a historic year for our US space industry.

This is all occurring while legacy contractors continue to help NASA build rockets that can compete with China with systems like the Space Launch System (SLS). In particular, SLS is a rocket that seems to have rattled China, which is hoping to field its rival by 2028. In fact, the federal government deemed the SLS project so essential to the overarching goal of our space endeavors that parts of it were granted waivers during the 2018-2019 shutdown. This is not surprising when one considers that the SLS is the likely vehicle with which we will return to the moon and, hopefully, go to Mars.

With all of this new competition and innovation, 2019 can be a historic year for our US space industry. As long as Washington continues to embrace this competitive atmosphere and let new and old companies work together to create a better aerospace sector at large, all of these efforts by China will amount to static in no time at all.