In light of the announcement that China plans to make its first manned space docking in late June, what does this mean for the United States on the international stage of space flight and exploration?
The launch of the Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 during the height of the Cold War sent shockwaves throughout the United States and precipitated an era in which Americans’ eyes were perpetually glued to the skies. For 12 years, the Space Race with the Soviet Union was in full swing and every week NASA made new and exciting discoveries that opened new frontiers of discovery and geopolitical wrangling. This all peaked, of course, with the successful Apollo 11 Lunar mission in 1969, and was accompanied by the universal understanding that the United States had dealt the knockout blow to Soviet space ambitions. This should all be common knowledge.
What is not so often recognized, however, is that in such a unipolar environment comes a pair of intoxicating tendencies: complacency and myopia—both enemies of sustained hegemony in any arena. This has been the situation of the United States since the twilight of the Apollo mission and is perhaps best reflected in the precipitous drop in NASA funding as percentage of GNP (from 1 percent of GNP in 1969 to about one-half percent today). This helps us understand why we have not had a manned space flight to the Moon since 1972 and why NASA’s current strategy is subject to constant revisions as a result of budgetary constrictions. In an exclusive interview with the Harvard Political Review, renown astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went as far as saying the United States needs to bolster its investment in space exploration or “[we] might as well just move back into the cave, because that’s where we will wake up one morning and find ourselves as the rest of the world passes us by.”
By his reference to “the rest of the world,” Dr. Tyson metonymically implied China, which by all reports has no intention of slowing down the rapid progress of its unilateral space program. A 2011 White Paper from Beijing indicates that over the next five years, China will develop plans for improved space infrastructure and a manned space station, promote its satellite industry, and perhaps most importantly, “conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.” On June 9, 2012, China fulfilled half of its prophecy, announcing its first manned space slated for later in the month.
Testimony before Congress delivered by Dr. Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, indicates why we Americans should be concerned. Although the United States’ program maintains a decisive edge in terms of technology and experience to China’s, “the United States appears to have forgotten the strategic value of a national human space flight program” that will hold significant consequences in the realm of international relations.
First of all unlike NASA, which has a purely civilian scientific mission, China’s space program has been military in nature from the outset. This raises the specter of involvement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in space missions in ways that might prove disconcerting to other countries. To oversimplify, the Cold War proved that the United States will go to exceedingly far lengths to crystallize its global hegemony and does not take kindly to it being challenged. The dynamic with China is even more concerning than it was with the Soviets because the United States knew of Soviet capabilities and intentions, whereas it has yet to decode the opaque intentions of the Chinese.
China has historically gone to great lengths to shield its internal decision-making process from public scrutiny and increases the probability of improper signaling and informational asymmetry of great magnitude. One need not look further than American accusations of Chinese currency manipulation to make U.S. exports more expensive to note that neither side of the Pacific can get a handle on the rationales or intentions of decisions made by the other. Apply this to matters concerning the military and space exploits and it makes for a potentially inflammatory situation whereby the United States and China become entangled in a race of sorts to make advances in space before the other out of indeterminate security concerns and desire for international prestige.
The United States and China have certainly collaborated in the past over scientific and technological pursuits, and while that is not expected to change with rising Chinese ambitions, the issue of manned space flight prompts a different conversation. As demonstrated by the adulatory air surrounding the Apollo 11 mission in American popular culture, human space flight is symbolic of pride, greatness and dominion of the human race on a galactic stage. The country that assumes that mantle is by extension entitled to an elevated standing on the world stage, and so forth.
It is no mystery that the United States’ hegemony is increasingly in doubt. However, do not expect for it to not do everything in its power to check an encroaching power like China. Although he discounted the idea of a “race” to space, Dr. Tyson acknowledged the resilience and cognizance of the United States with regard to Chinese advances. As he put it, “If China says they are going to put military bases on Mars, we’ll be in Mars in 10 months.”
It is a well-known maxim that the rules of international relations in new domains are created by those who show up and not by those who stay home. The United States will not stay home.
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