If and when the U.S. lands astronauts on Mars, it’s likely the red Chinese flag will be planted next to the Stars and Stripes. At least, that's the unspoken conclusion at the heart of a National Research Council report on the future of the U.S. manned space program that was released last week.
It’s a tough message for Americans weaned on the notion that the moon landing almost 50 years ago was merely the first step toward a U.S.-dominated cosmos. Since then, funding shortages and lack of vision are leading to “failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” as the NRC report says. Collaboration, including with feared rivals, may be the only way forward.
There’s no question the U.S. manned program needs a course correction. Arguably, it’s been meandering since Neil Armstrong “won” the space race in the 1960s. Since then, ambitious exploration programs have given way to expensive incrementalism in the form of a space shuttle and space station that have stranded U.S. astronauts -- and humanity -- in low Earth orbit. They have a view of the moon, but no rocket to get there or beyond.
From a scientific standpoint, there’s little question that unmanned space missions, such as the Mars Curiosity rover, are cheaper and more rewarding than manned flights. But, as the NRC report points out, human exploration has never been about science alone. It’s also about politics, technology and inspiration.
Europe, as well as China, Japan and India, are spending handsomely on manned programs, and any “potential geopolitical shift among spacefaring nations away from the United States and toward the Asia-Pacific region could bring with it unknown strategic and practical consequences for the United States,” the NRC says. The less practical consequences, including a loss of national prestige, are no less important. Does the U.S. really want to be perceived as ceding the frontiers of human exploration to its geopolitical and ideological rivals?
Chief among those rivals is China. While the U.S. commitment to space has declined from around 4 percent of the federal budget under President Richard Nixon, to less than 1 percent today, China’s commitment has grown considerably. Precise numbers aren’t public, but China “marches steadily and strategically toward what might eventually become a lead role among the nations in spaceflight,” the NRC report says.
In just the last few years, China has sent humans into space, landed a rover on the moon, begun research on long-term effects of deep space exploration, and announced a space station and human moon landing program. It’s possible that none of those programs will come to fruition, but the announcements signal China’s considerable ambitions.
Unfortunately, due to security and intellectual property concerns, political resistance and misguided legislation and policies prohibiting bilateral U.S.-China space collaboration, the U.S. won’t participate in these Chinese efforts -- despite Chinese eagerness for such collaboration.
In the near-term, the loss is China’s. U.S. space technology and know-how is decades ahead. Longer-term, however,the balance will shift as China looks to Europe, Russia, and other Asian countries for partners. The imperative for the U.S. is clear. “Given the rapid development of China’s capabilities in space,” the NRC report says, "it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to its inclusion in future international partnerships.”
During the Cold War, U.S. scientists quietly collaborated with their Soviet rivals, eventually partnering on an orbital docking mission (a mission that U.S. law currently prohibits the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from pursuing with China). It was a pragmatic policy that eventually led to Russian collaboration on the International Space Station, and one of the few positives in the troubled U.S.-USSR relationship. China’s relationship with the U.S. is no less complicated than Russia's is today. But that’s no excuse to avoid working together in space.
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