Advocates of U.S. human spaceflight fight a truly uphill battle. They task themselves with identifying the best arguments in support of human spaceflight, and by all accounts it is a desperate mission. Their task has taken a more urgent tone as the United States will not regain its homegrown access to space until 2016 at the earliest.

As it is, the future of American human spaceflight is in a fragile state. We are in the middle of a human spaceflight capability gap that will last longer than the time from President John F. Kennedy’s announcement to Neil Armstrong’s first step. While in this gap, we will lose much of our expertise, our skill and our cutting edge. In addition, those generations of scientists and engineers who were around when we went to space will have gone on to other things, leaving few with operational experience. Much of the leadership role the United States played in space is derived from our experience and expertise — and this gap may well have dulled the edge.

While the position of the United States wanes, China’s influence and capability grow sharper each year. It has been making steady progress in its human spaceflight program: First, put a man in space. Check, 2003. Two-man crew? Check, 2005. Space walk? Check, 2008. Launch a basic space laboratory? Check, 2011.

China has since announced plans for a permanent space station, projected for 2020. While the U.S. human spaceflight program languishes, China is setting ambitious yet fairly realistic and measured goals for its spaceflight program. The international space station could be set to deorbit just as the Chinese station is due to become operational. I cannot think of a clearer sign of lost U.S. leadership in space. Is it really so inconceivable that China may overtake the United States?

Ironically, this disquieting situation could also the best thing for the U.S. human spaceflight program — it may just be a saving grace.

History illustrates this best: The most successful periods of U.S. manned spaceflight were during the space race against the Soviets and during the development of the international space station with the Russians. The reason: geopolitics. Geopolitics is the mother of all human spaceflight, and it could also be the savior of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Today we see a new dynamic in Asia, namely rising tensions between China and its neighbors, Japan, South Korea and India. China is maximizing and expanding its sphere of influence in the Pacific and in doing so is attempting to gain relative power. These countries are all close allies of the U.S., and in many ways their security is tied directly to U.S. power in the Pacific. The United States, therefore, has a vested interest in maintaining stability and strength in the region. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently stated, “The United States has long been deeply involved in the Asia-Pacific. Through times of war and peace, under Democratic and Republican leaders, through rancor and comity in Washington, through surplus and debt. We were here then, we are here now and we will be here for the future.”

China, though technologically and militarily inferior to the United States, has made significant advances in relative regional power. The recent struggles over the Senkaku Islands demonstrated this clearly. It is by no means coincidental that China has been urgently preparing its first aircraft carrier for deployment. No other country in the region has a carrier, and the significance of Chinese power projection in the Pacific goes beyond technical capabilities relative to the United States: It strikes at the heart of regional power competition.

Space is but another facet of regional power competition. China has proved that it can make impressive yet steady advances in space, following a doctrine and reaching milestones in the orderly progression that Wernher von Braun touted. Given their measured advances, is it unreasonable to say the Chinese are on track for their first space station in roughly 2020? It would seem they have a fair chance of success. This achievement would most certainly have a destabilizing effect in Asia, and without even engaging the United States, China will have established its regional dominance and international legitimacy as an up-and-coming bona fide superpower.

The United States must recognize this for what it is: a dangerous power shift wrapped in a rare opportunity. This is a chance for the United States to reassert influence in the Pacific by developing a relationship in space with our regional allies, a new foreign policy tool with China, and a revitalization of our waning space program. Much like the development of a partnership in space with the Soviet Union and later Russia, the United States can harness the space program as a means of shaping or at least mitigating Chinese influence with other countries in the region.

Through means of international cooperation in space, the United States can protect and reinforce the position of its allies, and consequently its own regional power — as it has done on the seas and with joint military exercises. There is no reason it cannot and should not do so with the space program. China recognizes that it cannot counter U.S. power on the land and seas, especially now that the U.S. military is shifting its focus back to the Pacific. China has hedged its power bet with its space program. The United States must do the same.

The return of the U.S. space program as a foreign policy tool may very well result in successful management of growing Chinese power by means of the peaceful, humanitarian and frankly extraordinary achievements of human spaceflight. By giving NASA a geopolitical context to develop and maintain ambitious missions, the United States, for the second time in human history, will have worked to produce outstanding progress for all mankind during a time of great international uncertainty. It must not pass up this opportunity.


James Court is studying political science and international affairs at the George Washington University.