The Next Space Race

Image: NASA

In the latest Hollywood space blockbuster The Martian, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an American astronaut stranded on Mars. Scrambling to save him as the world watches, the United States swallows its pride and asks China to lend a helping hand with its space assets to launch a rescue mission. The movie caught the attention of the chief of China’s National Space Administration, who believes the film “shows that our US counterparts very much hope to cooperate with us.”

But reality looks like it is going to be more complicated when it comes to China and Mars.

Recently, China’s space mission chief revealed his country’s ambition to land on Mars by the year 2021. Wu Weiren, the chief engineer for China’s Lunar Exploration program outlined this plan in an interview with the BBC. This comes less than a year after NASA announced a timetable for reaching Mars by 2030. The competing ambitions could prove to be the next “space race” between the first nation to land humans on the moon and an aspiring global power.

The United States and China’s conceived Mars missions cloak deeper geopolitical ambitions that harken back to the days of the Cold War. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space, sparking a battle for superiority of the “final frontier” between the United States and its Cold War rival. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because they are easy but because they are hard,” said President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The next US administration will similarly need to inspire as it tackles one of the biggest scientific – and strategically important – national endeavors ever attempted.

With ostensibly scientific aims, the first technological leaps into space were fueled by defense and military ambitions back on Earth. Space was the ultimate high ground, and owning it would have proved decisive for either the United States or Soviet Union in the event of war.

That remains true today with GPS and satellite communications as essential but vulnerable pillars of the American military.

“If an adversary were able to take space away from us, our ability to project decisive military power across transoceanic distances – the very essence of our conventional deterrence – would be critically weakened,” said Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work in am April 12 speech at the Space Symposium.

Yet the world today is vastly different from the Cold War when Star Trek showcased a future when all nations became allies in humankind’s quest to explore space. China is a real economic and technological challenger to the United States in ways the Soviet Union was not. Much as strategic rivalry underpinned the race to put a man on the moon in 1969, terrestrial geopolitics could drive the push for the first human expedition to Mars.

Even amidst nuclear saber rattling and proxy wars, the Soviet Union and United States were still able to sustain cooperation in space even at the height of the Cold War. As in The Martian, science could sometimes transcend realpolitik.

China may not have that avenue. In 2011, Congress passed a law banning NASA from collaborating with China, citing vulnerabilities to espionage.

The race to Mars, set against the backdrop of new global security environments, may have significant implications for the future of warfare. As the head of US Strategic Command Admiral Cecil D. Haney outlined earlier this year, “once thought of as a sanctuary, space is more congested, contested, and competitive than ever, and it becoming increasingly vulnerable.”

China has already showcased its space capabilities by testing a series of cutting-edge weapons systems in space that sound like something out of a science-fiction novel: hypersonic space weapons, high-earth orbit interceptors, missile-loaded satellites, and, of course, space lasers.

The hype around prospective Mars missions has been insulated from such hard-edged military dynamics. But the technologies honed in developing a Mars mission, including fusion power systems, long-range communications, or medical advancements, could have “spinoff” benefits for the military.

Space exploration has accelerated technological advancements that militaries and everyday consumers benefit from, in fields ranging from artificial limbs to highway safety to land mine removal, as NASA outlines. To taste the drink Tang, at one time during the Cold War, was to savor a future laden with possibility among the stars. Yet nearly all technologies first forged for space exploration have harder-edged military applications, from unmanned aerial vehicles to anti-satellite weapons to directed-energy weapons.

In 2012, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned in a testimony before Congress, “the space program, including ostensible civil projects, supports China’s growing ability to deny or degrade the space assets of potential adversaries and enhances China’s conventional military capabilities.”

For all the utopian narrative about reaching Mars, a bona fide race to a planet named after the god of war could accelerate advancements in “sci-fi” weapons in the coming decades. From advanced military space stations (the Soviets foreshadowed this development with its Almaz military space station program in the 1970’s), to military nano and microsatellites to the nefariously-named MAHEM weapon DARPA is developing, the next space race could pioneer military advancements in space.

The law barring US cooperation with China in space is highly controversial, particularly in the scientific community. Perhaps stories about noble collaborative missions such as rescuing the likes of Matt Damon will lead to overturning such laws. Peaceful exploration, after all, is something to strive for – especially by the Defense Department and the People’s Liberation Army.

But with both China and US eyes set on sending their men and women to lay claim to the red planet, it would seem the race is already on.