Major changes in how nations think about space crystallized in January 2007 when a Chinese missile managed to hit an orbiting satellite. The test reinforced views of the space environment as a crowded arena where nations will compete for prestige and national advantage.
The most worrisome implication of this event was the lack of concern or miscalculation by China over international reaction to the test. If the Chinese national security apparatus can miscalculate the reaction to a space test, it may make similar miscalculations for other military escapades. Exposing the inadequacies in Chinese decision-making may be the test’s most important result.
The test discomfited arms control advocates who had called for the
United States to accept a U.N. treaty that would make space a haven of peace. China, which routinely announced its commitment to the treaty, and the peaceful use of space while deploring American military programs, appears hypocritical. Untrustworthy partners and unverifiable agreements make space arms control a dubious proposition, but even if the United Nations bans ballistic or space-based weapons, there are so many alternative ways to attack satellites that any treaty would fail.
The long-expected test was itself not as important as were its implications for other nations’ space policies. It led some space
to reshape their programs, and it highlighted weaknesses in others. If there is a space race, it is in Asia. South Korea plans, with Russian help, to become a space power. India and Japan have announced ambitious schedules for exploration and both are expanding their military space activities in response to the perception that China’s successes have increased its power at their expense (although Japan must first modify its basic space law – likely to be an arduous process).
The implications for the United States
are disconcerting. It would be easy to conclude that we spend more and get less. This is not entirely fair. In key areas – commercial satellites, entrepreneurial space activities
and robotic exploration – the United States
remains the world leader. But in two crucial areas for national power, U.S. programs appear ponderous: manned exploration and military space. Ironically, it is in these two areas that the
United States spends the most. The problem is not a lack of money, but how we spend it.
NASA’s budget is probably four to five times the size of China’s space spending, but expensive legacies – the shuttle and the international space station – hobble U.S. efforts. These two programs eat millions of dollars that make it hard to fund
other programs (and
Congress is unlikely to compensate for any
shortfall). However, the
United States cannot simply cut its losses: the shuttle-
station combination is still the basis of the U.S. manned program and the vehicle around which we organize international cooperation.
United States should have begun to replace the shuttle years ago;
its fragility limits new scientific work on the space station. Manned spaceflight may do more for national prestige than for science, but the
United States badly needs to restore its prestige as a world leader. Old technologies will not do this. Perhaps the most telling quote of the year was NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s remark that he expects the Chinese to return to the
Moon before we do. If this happens, it will be globally interpreted as America surpassed.
In military space, where the United States
spends more than the rest of the world put together, the year has been marked more by what has not been done. Major programs remain behind schedule and over budget. It was no accident that one program – the Wideband Global Satcom system –
originally was named “Gapfiller.” Paradoxically, some efforts to controls costs in national security space programs likely helped to increase both costs and delays. Cumulatively, the delays and overruns that afflict these programs do not pose an immediate risk to security, but they call into question the current rules and structures for managing the large and complex enterprise that military and intelligence satellite acquisitions have become.
If we measure efficiency by the amount of dollars and time it takes to launch a new satellite or manned flight, the problems the U.S. faces certainly predate China’s test. Our current inertia is the result of shortcomings in strategy and organization. We do not know if China or other spacefaring nations have similar problems, but it would be no surprise if their management is worse. For China, we do not want to take seriously claims for prowess churned out by a well-honed propaganda machine. At the same time, their work force is younger, their budgets are growing, and their political leadership
recognizes the political value of space. These are real advantages. While the
United States no longer complacently believes that its lead in space is unchallenged, we have not yet managed to untangle two critical parts of the U.S. program from snarls that are largely of our own making.
The return of competition to space does not mean there is no room for cooperation and collaboration.
For science, collaboration and cooperation are the only policies
. Finding ways to expand
cooperation with allies in some security space programs could also help
. To improve performance, the United States will have to compete in some areas and collaborate in others.
People who work in space understand the concepts of inertia and momentum. Inertia and momentum are also political concepts, but unlike physics, it is preferable in politics to have momentum rather than to appear inert. The past year
saw several nations announce ambitious new programs for space; the question for the end of 2007
is how well the
United States will respond. This is not a repetition of the race with the Soviets, but we should not let the slow pace and lower profile confuse us about what is at stake.
James A. Lewis is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.