The recent U.S. conflict with China over mystery objects in the sky is a reminder that we are in an economic and political rivalry with the Communist nation, one that extends into space, as Lisa Fletcher reports.
The December splashdown of the most powerful rocket NASA has ever made, Artemis, was the successful conclusion to a mission laying the groundwork to take Americans back to the moon and beyond.
And while Artemis has fortified U.S. resolve to go back to the lunar surface, the real question is, what do you do when you get there?
Because our biggest rival is putting a tremendous amount of energy into launching a new space station, building bigger rockets, and developing plans that make ours seem a little small.
Peter Garretson: There's really no area that China is not seeking to eclipse the United States. And, of course, military is one as well.
Retired Air Force Colonel Peter Garretson spent a good part of his military career thinking about space as a strategic planner. He’s now with the American Foreign Policy Council think tank. His new book is called The Next Space Race.
Lisa: What does the average American need to be aware of in terms of China's activity in space?
Garretson: So I think the first thing is just to realize how different it is this time than the last space race. So the last space race really was for a global audience, and it was about prestige. It was about getting somewhere first. And this time, it's completely different. This time, it's about building an industrial supply chain that is going to affect economic power, you know, for two centuries to come, and probably will affect our children and grandchildren much sooner.
In the first space race, it was the U.S. versus the Soviets – a Russia-led union of communist countries. This time, our rival is the Chinese. But one element has stayed the same — it’s all about who’s first. And China has made no secret of its intentions. It sees the moon and space as a resource to exploit, prioritizing mining the moon for minerals and water and nearby asteroids for metal elements so critical to the world’s high-tech products, from defense to computers. It’s also designing giant satellites to capture enough solar energy to power our planet and developing space-to-ground weapons systems.
Lisa: Are we making the same plans, are we looking at the same sorts of things that they are?
Garretson: I don't think so. We're not talking about developing the moon industrially as an end. In fact, if you look at the White House cislunar strategy, it's not one of the key goals.
But it is a key goal for the Chinese; they’re already planning to launch rovers to explore the moon’s south pole, setting up a potential race to gather resources.
Peter Garretson: On the moon, they've looked at what are the areas of the moon. These are principally the poles. So because of the unique geometry of the moon, the mountains on the north and south pole get nearly constant sunlight, and the craters get no sunlight at all. And so they've trapped water, great lakes worth of water, which is a tremendous logistical resource. And so, in the same way that NASA has mapped out where it might want to go, China has mapped out nearly identical areas of where they think would be important to go.
Lisa: Is it just a matter of who gets there first?
Garretson: It probably is a matter of who gets there first.
Lisa: And then you stake a flag, and it's mine?
Lisa: How is this going to work?
Garretson: We don’t know.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placed the American flag on the moon in 1969, it was just a symbolic gesture. Most nations, including the U.S. and China, have signed the Outer Space Treaty saying territory can’t be claimed, but countries can build facilities where they want, and others can’t interfere with them.
When I met NASA Administrator Bill Nelson just before Artemis launched, he was keenly alert to China’s geopolitical plans for the moon.
Lisa: With regard to China, you recently made some statements of concern about them possibly using the moon as a military strategic destination. What brought you to that conclusion about their operations?
Bill Nelson: Because they're so secretive. Since China has a very good space program, and they say they're going to land on the moon, and they usually do what they say they're going to do in space. So is it beyond the realm of possibility that they land on the south pole where the water is? If there's water, there's rocket fuel, hydrogen, and oxygen. Chinese get there, there's always the possibility that they say, "You stay out. This is our exclusive zone."
As we’ve reported before on Full Measure, China has repeatedly ignored international law, taking over disputed territory in the South China Sea and building military bases to expand its reach. The concern: it may try to do the same in space.
Garretson: China’s long-term plan is to create a moon-earth economic zone, and they hope that by 2050, that moon-earth economic zone will be returning $10 trillion of economic activity every year. They are really trying to create a fourth industrial revolution that is truly where I think the next century is going to be decided.
While Garretson says the U.S. still has the edge in space technology, the Chinese will likely catch up within a decade.
Lisa: How important is it that the U.S. get this right?
Garretson: I actually can't think of a more important thing that the United States and U.S. policymakers need to be thinking about that's going to affect our children and grandchildren than accessing the largest possible trove of resources that's going to determine who is the economic power for at least the next two centuries.
So, in the new space race, the ultimate prize is not prestige but economic domination, and that contest could turn into a conflict a quarter million miles above earth.
Sharyl (on-camera): Any idea of the timeline for China's ambitions?
Lisa: Yeah — pretty soon. China has already published a document that says it's going to see itself as the number one space power by 2045.
Sharyl: Well, it seems like whenever we hear the U.S. talking about things in space, we're focusing on science and technology, not so much the economic aspect.
Lisa: Yeah, that's true. Last fall, the White House came out with a strategy document, and it listed goals like advancing science, technology, and research, and not things like mining the moon or mining the asteroid belt.
Sharyl: Alright, we'll keep an eye on it. Thanks a lot, Lisa.