The United States could be eclipsed by China in orbit unless it unites around a common goal for space, as it did during the race to the Moon a half-century ago, according to a report released Wednesday.
China is working to become the world’s dominant space power “economically, diplomatically, and militarily” by 2045, according to the State of the Space Industrial Base report for 2022, which was written by officials from the Space Force, Defense Innovation Unit, Air Force, and Air Force Research Laboratory. They argue that the United States must quickly act to maintain its advantage over Beijing, including using more commercial technology and setting long-term, bipartisan policy goals.
“While the United States space industrial base remains on an upward trajectory, participants expressed concerns that the upward trajectory of the People’s Republic of China…is even steeper, with a significant rate of overtake, requiring urgent action,” the report says. “The U.S. lacks a clear and cohesive long term vision, a grand strategy for space that sustains economic, technological, environmental, social and military (defense) leadership for the next half century and beyond.”
China has a long list of ways to disrupt U.S. space operations, some of which it demonstrated in 2007 when it blew up one of its own satellites in orbit as part of a direct-ascent anti-satellite test. Beijing has also proven its ability to rendezvous with other satellites in orbit to disable them, and likely has robust jamming, spoofing, and cyber capabilities, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Space Threat Assessment released in April.
Many of China’s ambitious civil space programs also have close ties to its military space missions. After becoming the first nation to land on the far side of the moon in 2019 and then landing on Mars in 2021, China is preparing to conduct short lunar missions within eight years and send large pieces of equipment to the moon in the 2030s. It is also building a space station in low-Earth orbit, and could become the only country to have an orbital outpost when the International Space Station retires in 2031.
In contrast, America’s democratically-elected government means the nation’s goals in space can change every two or four years as leaders with different priorities and of different political parties win election. Since officials decided to end the space shuttle program in the early 2000s, the U.S. has shifted between efforts to return astronauts to the moon, land people on a near-Earth asteroid, and restart lunar missions with an eye towards Mars.
This frequent changing of plans has left the United States without a “North Star vision” around which to rally the nation, according to the industrial base report, which named crafting such a plan as its top recommendation.
“This vision must be as clear and ambitious in scale and timeline as the PRC and more inclusive of international collaboration across the spectrum of commercial, civil and national security space activities,” the report says. “For the first time, participants expressed concerns that China appears to be on track to surpass the U.S. as the dominant space power by 2045 or potentially earlier unless proactive measures are taken now to sustain our nation’s leadership.”
That vision should center around “economic development and human settlement,” the report says.
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