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Long March 5B launch
A Long March 5B rocket lifts off in April carrying the core module of China’s new space station. China and Russia have recently agreed to cooperate on space exploration activities, including missions to the Moon. (credit: Xinhua)

Why the China-Russia space alliance will speed up human exploration of Mars

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On March 9, the China National Space Administration and the Russian space agency Roscosmos signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the joint construction of a permanent research station on the Moon. Their explicit goal is to make this a base of future space exploration operations, with the implicit goals of planning a crewed mission to Mars and boldly challenging US leadership in space. Could this latest and largest step in the emerging “new space race” ultimately accelerate the landing of humans on Mars?

The answer is yes, but not in the way one might think.

What could spark a new space race more than an alliance between the two primary international rivals of the US?

Consider first the fact that, until recently, the US has enjoyed such an unparalleled dominance in space that no other country in the world seriously challenged it. This began when the US beat the Soviets to the Moon in the 1960s. No other humans have stepped foot on the Moon since American astronaut Gene Cernan climbed back up the ladder into the lunar module of Apollo 17 on December 14, 1972. There have been other uncrewed missions to the Moon and beyond, by several countries, but nothing with the scope, daring, and sheer historical impact of Apollo.

Still, the Apollo era peaked more than a half century ago. The conditions surrounding the space race of the 1960s do not exist today. Back in the Cold War that followed World War II, both the US and Soviet Union began to view space as the means for achieving military supremacy. The Soviets scored many firsts: the first artificial satellite, animals in space, man in space, human spacewalk, and woman in space. With the Luna program, they also had the first spacecraft to fly by the Moon, crash on the Moon, photograph the far side of the Moon, and successfully land on the Moon.

John F. Kennedy recognized that the US was behind in space and that with Sputnik and Gagarin, the Soviets’ growing dominance in space could lead to a similar dominance in international relations here on Earth. He pressed his team for a plan to get ahead of the Soviets, searching desperately for a way of “leap-frogging” the Russians to assert US supremacy in space. He correctly equated leadership in space with international prestige, respect, and power. Many factors converged to make the lunar landings possible, including the Cold War rivalry, advancements in rocketry and computers, the cultural embrace of a youthful American valor exemplified by JFK and the astronauts, and the tragic assassination of the visionary president that cemented the US commitment “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Today, the Apollo era has achieved an almost mythical stature in American culture; it is legendary but is also sliding further into the past.

The latest trends, however, may mark a change in circumstances that sets the new NASA Artemis program on a path to more closely mirror Apollo. What could spark a new space race more than an alliance between the two primary international rivals of the US?

For the US, Russia remains a geopolitical foe. The focus on Russia and its efforts to exert influence on US activities has escalated over the last five years. In March, the US announced sanctions against Russia for cyberattacks. In April, Russia announced it may cease its cooperation on the International Space Station and instead develop its own orbiting space station. This may be sheer posturing, but political tension between the US and Russia is high and shows no signs of diminishing anytime soon.

The timing of a Chinese-Russian alliance in space could be enough to nudge the concerns about global leadership and power into a new space race that more closely resembles the old.

China is perhaps an even greater adversary, something Mitt Romney warned about when he ran for president in 2012. The Trump Administration reacted to this growing threat with tariffs and the Biden Administration just renewed sanctions against China over human rights. China has been developing its space program consistently over the last decade and has scored incremental successes in space with growing frequency. They placed an orbiter around the Moon in 2007, landed a spacecraft on the Moon in 2013, accomplished the first soft landing of a craft on the far side of the Moon in 2019, and returned lunar samples to Earth in 2020. They also last year completed the establishment of a global navigation satellite network. On Friday, the landed a rover on the surface of Mars, three months after going into orbit around the Red Planet. Their recent commitment to space is reflected in these step-by-step, consistent successes.

For space missions, which by their nature require long lead times, China and Russia have a structural advantage. Neither experiences the partisan leadership swings that the US faces when administrations change. But this disadvantage in the US may be offset by the role of commercial space partnerships with the private sector. As of late last year, NASA had announced 20 new partnerships with commercial space firms, including collaborations with SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others. The US does not have a monopoly on commercial partnerships, but the capitalist economy and rapid escalation of the role of private enterprises in space provide an advantage for the US relative to China and especially to Russia.

The new space race differs from the old in more ways than just the role of commercial partners. Another difference is that we currently lack any appreciable public apprehension of an adversarial threat. The fear of Soviet power in space was tangible in the 1960s; the capability to explore space and the capability to launch spy satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles were two sides of the same coin that aroused urgent public interest in the US space program. Today, Americans aren’t overtly anxious about the threats from Russia and China. Nevertheless, political pundits note a growing divide between the US and China, at precisely the same time that China is hitting its stride on space exploration. The timing of a Chinese-Russian alliance in space could be enough to nudge the concerns about global leadership and power into a new space race that more closely resembles the old.

On the other hand, of course, there are skeptics. Some claim that the Russians cannot afford to fund a major space initiative, or that the MOU is an empty gesture undertaken only for optics. But even if the MOU fails to translate into any real action, the risk that China and Russia could beat the US to establishing a permanent base on the Moon or landing humans on Mars could be enough to spur action in the US. Is the US really ready to risk its leadership in space and the perception of supremacy in technology and exploration? Are Americans going to accept watching yuhangyuans (“space navigators”) from China step onto the surface of Mars and plant the five-starred red flag on the red planet? (This assumes anyone gets to watch: one major difference stemming from the Cold War is that the US space program is very transparent to the entire world, in contrast to China and Russia.) What US president wants to congratulate communist China for landing humans on Mars? How could the US and its leaders allow that to happen? Is the US really going to accept being second?

Asked another, more historical way, why Mars? Why choose this as our goal? Why, 50 years ago, land Americans on the Moon? Why does Rice still play Texas? Why would we choose to go to Mars now?

Much like the question, the answer remains the same as it was almost 60 years ago. The challenge of going to Mars must become one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win. Put more directly, the US will go to Mars because we don’t want anyone else—particularly an alliance of our greatest geopolitical foes—to get there first.

Time will tell if the China-Russia alliance is political theater. If it is, the US plans for revisiting the Moon and for the subsequent exploration of Mars will march steadily forward. But if the alliance is real, it could spark the fires of competition in the US and accelerate the new space race. Then the possibility that China will land the first humans on Mars might just be enough to awaken a sleeping giant and fill it with resolve, to stir the hearts of the American people and the minds of US politicians, to spur them into action and prevent a foreign leapfrog. It just might accelerate the planning and execution of a bold US crewed mission to Mars, with the support of an American public and body politic filled with the fire to be first, and thus reinforcing the long-standing supremacy of the US in space for decades to come.

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