Alarms raised over minor or imagined space threats are nothing new. In his successful 1960 campaign for president, John F. Kennedy seized on the dangers of the missile gap — a presumed Soviet superiority in the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — and exploited it all the way to the White House. Yet the missile gap was a myth. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted as much to Kennedy in 1962. McNamara explained that “emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon” were responsible, and he noted, “There are still people of that kind in the Pentagon. I wouldn’t give them any foundation for creating another myth.”
Seventy years later, they’re at it again. A wide range of experts now warns the United States is losing a space race with China. China is developing “space capabilities at twice the rate” of the United States, and “if we don’t start accelerating our development and delivery capabilities, they will exceed us,” General David D. Thompson, vice chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, warned recently. Thompson’s sober assessment echoed that of others, including NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who called China a “very aggressive competitor” and a threat to American leadership in space.
Such fears are more fantasy than fact. The United States remains the most advanced space power in the world. Of the more than 4,500 satellites in orbit today, the United States accounts for more than half of them, some 2,700 satellites and nearly seven times as many as the next competitor — China. The Chinese hold the record for the most space launches in 2021 — a total of 55 launches to the United States’ 51. But the number of launches only tells part of the story because the United States has more powerful rockets, able to deliver more payloads — satellites, space probes, and spacecraft — to orbit.
China’s space funding has increased markedly in recent years, to $8.9 billion in 2020, but still trails the $48 billion in U.S. government space spending. The United States also boasts a booming commercial space industry. Investors are pouring billions of dollars into the U.S. space economy as scores of startups seek to join the likes of SpaceX and Amazon in orbit. Meanwhile, China’s private space industry lagged behind, with funding trending in the wrong direction last year.
To be sure, China’s space program has made significant advances in recent years, from completing its own global satellite navigation system and collecting lunar samples to landing a spacecraft on Mars and sending astronauts to its own space station. But these milestones should serve as a reality check: the United States is not falling behind in the space race, so much as China is steadily catching up after having started so far behind. And China’s future space ambitions will still need first to clear significant technical and other obstacles. Taken together, these different metrics indicate the United States remains the world leader in space by a wide margin.
Still, the Chinese space-race narrative has helped to stoke fears and prompted calls for the U.S. to spend more on new military space capabilities, space exploration, and the commercial space industry. But the last thing Washington should do is seek to repeat the Cold War experience in space. As the victors of the Cold War, it is all too easy to forget just how dangerous the space race was — and is. Washington and Moscow’s tit-for-tat competition in space was fraught with unspeakable dangers and escalatory risks. In July 1962, the U.S. electromagnetic pulse test, code-named Starfish Prime, permanently disabled a number of U.S. and Soviet satellites and created an artificial radiation blast lasting a decade. It could have easily spiraled out of control; that Washington and Moscow managed to avoid armed conflict offers little reason to be sanguine about the dangers of U.S.-Chinese space rivalry.
The Cold War space race was a risky game of one-upmanship, encouraging both sides to take shortcuts and accept higher accident risks. In October 1960, a Soviet general under political pressure to quickly test the new heavy-lift R-16 missile, neglected to clear personnel from the launch pad during fueling. When the liquid fuel in the booster’s second stage ignited, it caused a tremendous fireball that killed 126 scientists, engineers, and soldiers working at the site. Likewise, in 1967, separate accidents claimed the lives of three Apollo 1 astronauts and a Soviet cosmonaut — all in the haste to be the first to land a human on the moon. Today, accidents and malfunctions in space remain dangerous. As the low Earth orbit grows increasingly congested, so too does the danger of misperceiving accidental collisions as intentional acts of aggression. Much like the missile gap of the late 1950s, today’s rhetoric of “space doom” encourages a massive militarization of space that would tragically leave the United States poorer and less secure.
The United States faces real and significant security threats in space, but efforts to develop an effective space strategy must begin with a more clear-eyed net assessment. Promoting space cooperation with China would also help to dampen hype around a space race. While the Wolf Amendment limits U.S. government agencies, such as NASA, from cooperating with Chinese space agencies, the United States and China stand to mutually gain from collaboration for civil space exploration and science. Excluded from participation in the International Space Station (ISS) or NASA’s Artemis Accords, the Chinese have had little choice but to develop their own space station and lunar base. These parallel space missions create a sense of a stark competition and fuel the space race narrative. Mutually beneficial scientific cooperation between the United States and China mitigates the risks of turning all U.S.-China relations into zero-sum competition. Let the missile gap myth be a cautionary tale.
Kelly A. Grieco is a resident senior fellow at the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She received her Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and previously taught at the Air Command and Staff College.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.