Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, advocates of human spaceflight in the United States have found themselves adrift, unprepared to confront a new world in which the ambitious space program they constantly dream about was no longer part of the answer. Always looking for new rationales for continuing endeavors in space exploration, the mission they consider themselves invested is indeed a “desperate” one.

After China’s many accomplishments in human spaceflight, it is thus no wonder that people promoting space travel see the People’s Republic of China as the main character in their new play. The recent SpaceNews op-ed “Asia Offers Opportunity To Revitalize U.S. Space Program” [Feb. 4, page 19] appears as one late example offering this kind of geopolitical déjà vu. The article goes on to analyze implicitly China’s growing space capabilities as proof of both a new multipolar order looming in orbit and a threat to U.S. space leadership, and subsequently defines explicitly the need for a more aggressive civil space program in America. The opportunity it identifies looks actually not so much like a window but rather like a mirror.

For reasons of history and geography, the United States may have a vested interest in the Pacific region whose stability is imperiled by China’s rise as a great power. On the other hand, outer space is everybody’s concern. As such, it is worth asking if Asia’s “new space race” really offers the kind of opportunity one must seize without thinking twice. I suggest the U.S. should not rush.

Suffice is to say first that for human space exploration, competition is not the solution. Competition did not serve space exploration well the last time, as it ended abruptly after only 12 astronauts went for a brief walk on the Moon. To mature, human spaceflight needs stability and consistency. As history shows, only international cooperation can offer these.

And yet the fantasy remains, now being focused like a laser beam on China’s new status. It does not matter if apparent U.S. losses of power are more relative than absolute, strictly speaking. As space technology proliferates, many new actors are inevitably coming into sight and some others predictably will be catching up. Still, in listening to space boosters, one could not but conclude that the U.S is already dangerously bearing the weight of its lack of an autonomous human spaceflight capability — space advocates even call it a “gap,” a clear reminder of the 1950s and early ’60s when the people of America were terrified of invisible bombers and missiles.

It is true that this time the United States is taking a backseat to the last two countries with human space travel capability, Russia and China. Yet with the U.S. having more than 50 years of investments and a space budget second to none, I am not sure how this can be seen as the only fact that matters.

More importantly, I do not understand how it can be seen as evidence of lost leadership in space, meaning the U.S. falls behind in a position of technological and political inferiority. On the contrary, for what we know, the United States’ current lack of a human spaceflight capability is the consequence of a choice (be it bad or good), not the result of an incapacity. By withdrawing itself from this niche until commercial access to space grows sufficiently mature, the U.S. made a courageous bet.

Having said all that, one must certainly not underestimate China’s impressive progress in space these two last decades and its impact on the regional power dynamic, which involves Japan, India as well as both Koreas. To conclude, however, that to prevent China’s civil space program from having destabilizing effects in Asia, America must explicitly intervene and shape or mitigate Chinese influence is short-sighted and one-dimensional.

First, I do not see how U.S. interference in the region is going to stop the competition for prestige from spilling over. It might actually do worse, managing only to raise the stakes and show China there is more to gain than internal pride or regional dominance.

Second, Beijing’s growing investments in human spaceflight could very possibly be a solid step toward space security, something all spacefaring nations will benefit from. Expecting a return on its investments, with pride at the domestic level and prestige on the international stage, China would eventually learn along the way the value of a stabilized space environment and stop messing with it like it did with the anti-satellite test in 2007.

As a result, one needs to focus on strategy as well as on tactics. Wisdom shows in first discussing the “why” before going into the “how.” And the truth — sadly for space advocates, all imbued with the vision of space as the final frontier — is that human spaceflight is not an end in itself, but a means that must be put in the service of a greater objective and pondered only in relation to the latter. As a result, if an opportunity is there, it must be reflected upon very carefully.

My point is that America is better off in the Olympian position of the unchallenged unipolar power. According to this logic, to respond to China for reasons of prestige and reputation, i.e. to seemingly accept that the Chinese civil space program is on par with that of the United States — which it is not yet — as the very heir of the late Soviet Union, is already to lose and acknowledge defeat.

This is what the “been there, done that” approach chosen by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is all about, and why politically speaking the decision not to return to the Moon is a smart move. A new race to Earth’s natural satellite with the Chinese as the main challenger would not have been in America’s best interest. While symbolically showing that China was closing the gap with the West, it would also have mobilized a huge amount of money whose use for other purposes technologically and politically more interesting would have been impossible. It is a strategy the U.S. used many times when cooperating with Europe — often successfully.

Similarly, even if only rhetorically, the choice of a more exotic destination — like Mars, an asteroid or even the second Earth-Moon Lagrangian point — cannot but frustrate China since its current level of technology does not allow for the possibility to skip the “Moon” step. From this perspective, decline is only relative: The U.S. is still the one defining the rules of the game, i.e. showing leadership.

In the end, all that matters is choice. Without strategy, opportunity is likely to be counterproductive. As a very wise man put it once, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”


Guilhem Penent works for the Space Program at IFRI, the French Institute for International Relations.