With the flight of the Shenzhou 9, which includes the first docking between a Chinese spacecraft and a prototype space station module, a renewed debate has arisen over the implications of Chinese space feats. China is planning a large space station by the end of this decade. It has expressed the desire to land people on the moon sometime in the next decade. Scientists, foreign policy experts and journalists debate whether China has supplanted the U.S. as a space power and whether that matters.
China could annex the moon
Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist who writes frequently about space policy, and John Hickman, a political science professor, have raised the possibility China might renounce the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits claims of national sovereignty in space and annex all of part of the moon. Spudis, writing in his blog "The Once and Future Moon," emphasizes how control of the moon's resources, particularly water, might motivate the Chinese to risk the international firestorm that might result from renouncing the treaty. Hickman suggests in Foreign Policy that a Chinese lunar base set in the middle of Chinese sovereign territory at one of the lunar poles would attract private investors, economically benefiting China's space program.
America could be left behind
Spudis and Hickman suggest that by underfunding its space program and dithering about what its goals might be, the U.S. is in danger of being left behind in a new space race. The U.S. could lose the economic, scientific and national security benefits of having a robust space program, especially one directed at the moon.
China's space program faces challenges
Jeff Foust, in a post on Space Politics, quotes a number of sources saying China's space program faces significant challenges. One quoted report by the Project 2049 Institute for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission suggests control of China's space efforts are decentralized, spread out among a variety of government agencies and create coordination problems. The U.S. Defense Department suggests China faces some system reliability issues, citing the failure of a Long March 2C launch and problems with the DFH-4 communications satellite bus.
Space race with China is "ridiculous"
Phoenix McLaughlin, writing on Policymic, pronounced the idea of a space race with China to be "ridiculous." The real space race is between China and SpaceX, the private space company that recently flew a successful cargo run of its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. Spudis warns the private sector will not be up to the task of supporting an American space effort without heavy government support, including a government presence on the moon.
Political class weighs in
The Obama administration has been largely silent about how it regards any Chinese space challenge. According to the Chinese news agency Xinhua, NASA has congratulated the Chinese on the success of the Shenzhou 9. Mitt Romney, who is campaigning to replace President Obama, is quoted in Politico as decrying the idea of a race with the Chinese back to the moon. Romney made political hay attacking former rival Newt Gingrich's idea of a lunar base even though he has a number of return-to-the-moon advocates among his space policy advisers, including former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.