China Space Race Will Not Be With NASA, But With SpaceX

This weekend, China became the third country in history to have a space base in orbit. Some say this means almost nothing for the U.S., while others insist it's time we start training our Space Marines for Operation Enduring Lunar Freedom. In reality, the implications of China's move could be a much cooler third option: a new space race between the Chinese government and U.S. startups.

But why not a space race between the Chinese government and the U.S. government? Well, because that’s ridiculous. As with every other attempt to make China our new mortal enemy to fill the hole in our hearts left by the USSR, trying to fabricate competition between the U.S. and China in space does not work. China’s current mission will put them where we were roughly 50 years ago. Some have made a tortoise-and-the-hare analogy, but it simply does not apply. Yes, NASA has slowed down along with its slowing budget, but with the new Space Launch System (SLS), America will be sending people to asteroids and Mars around the time China is going to the moon.

So onto the more interesting race: China vs. U.S. companies.

While China is 50 years behind the U.S. government, they are much more comparable to U.S. companies. It was only a couple of weeks ago that SpaceX made history by becoming the first private company to successfully dock a space module to a station in orbit. This means they are roughly 10-15 years behind the Chinese government, but they could gain fast. Given that SpaceX did the job for a fraction of the proposed SLS, SpaceX and other companies could possibly make it much farther on much less than the Chinese or U.S. governments could.

SpaceX also started from nothing but founder Elon Musk’s bank account only 10 years ago. China’s space program technically started 60 years ago, but didn’t really get anywhere until 40 years later. A large part of China’s problem was all of the political unrest, and there is good reason to suspect that will play a role in the future; the transition going on this year could even upset the program. SpaceX will of course be affected somewhat by politics as well, but they are not defined by it like a government program is.

SpaceX certainly isn’t the only viable member of the U.S. corporate team either; there are numerous other companies focused on going to the moon and beyond. There are many focused on space tourism, a couple looking at the moon, and no less than 3 companies focused on space mining, either on the moon or on asteroids. Some of these have failed, as is the norm for any industry, but many are going strong. 

It helps that many of the companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and Planetary Resources, are founded by billionaires who could keep their company funded for years all by themselves. Fun fact: Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, has the net worth of 2.3 million average Chinese people.

China might soon discover it has some fierce competition that it hadn’t even considered. Let the games begin.