WASHINGTON — Just hours after a Chinese rover successfully touched down on the surface of Mars Friday evening, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said the achievement puts to rest any doubt that China is a rising space power that will challenge the United States.

“This landing reinforces the point that we don’t own space any more,” King told reporters May 15 hours after returning from a two-day visit to U.S. Space Command and other military installations in Colorado.

King, an independent who caucuses with the Senate’s Democratic majority, is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, which oversees the Pentagon’s space, nuclear and strategic deterrence programs.

China is now the second nation, after the United States, to achieve a soft landing on Mars. King said he wouldn’t necessarily call it a Sputnik moment but it is a reminder to the United States that a strong competitor is emerging in space. “We had unimpeded access” for many years and that is changing, King said. 

China’s Tianwen-1 mission is the country’s first independent interplanetary expedition which launched in July 2020. China previously landed on the near and far sides of the moon, in 2013 and 2019 respectively, before completing a complex lunar sample return late last year.

Reflecting on his visit to U.S. Space Command, King said the news that China had landed on the red planet dispels any doubts about the need for a U.S. Space Force.

“To me that sort of sums up the question of our posture in space, of why we have a Space Force,” said King.

The Mars landing shows a “tremendous level of technological sophistication and ability,” he said. It also raises national security concerns for the United States, he added. “If they can land a rover on Mars, there’s a lot of other things they can do that might not be so benevolent.”

As China and more players begin to deploy assets in space, King said the United States should push for a global agreement on norms of behavior. “It’s in everybody’s interest,” he said. “Ships pass each other on the right. We need standards so we don’t have chaos.”

This effort should be led by the State Department and DoD, not Congress, King said. Discussions should start with allies and eventually the Russians and Chinese should be brought to the table so countries understand “to what degree they’re interested in pursuing this,” he said. “I believe in multilateral coalitions rather than us-against-them.”

A couple years ago in meetings with Asian government officials, King said, “I learned that the U.S. has allies and China has customers. We should take advantage of that.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...