Will China Trigger Another Space Race?

By Ross Pomeroy

Neil deGrasse Tyson is "certain" that the next space race will be initiated by China.

"If China sets up a permanent base on the moon, and tries to explore Mars on a time scale shorter than ours, that will be another space race," Tyson told Popular Science earlier this week. If Tyson is right, then a new space race is inevitable.

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In the past decade, China has made no effort to hide its intentions in outer space. The country wants to lead the world in space exploration, and it has shown that it has the potential to do so. Many Chinese see their space program as a matter of national prestige -- a confirmation of their new found superpower status. This view has been a fierce motivator. After first announcing its manned spaceflight program in 1999, China sent astronaut Yang Liwei into space only four years later. And just last year, millions of Chinese looked on with pride as the Tiangong 1 space station, their "Heavenly Palace," blasted off into the night sky to enter orbit around our planet.

But these accomplishments are mere stepping stones to a loftier goal, which, after being ignored ten years ago, is now coming into renewed focus. Little heed was paid to Ouyang Ziyuan, a chief scientist with China's Moon exploration program, when he said in 2002 that China's "long-term goal is to set up a base on the Moon and mine its riches for the benefit of humanity." How quickly times can change.

Russia, Japan, India and the European Space Agency are all currently floating around ideas for a lunar colony within the next 20 years. The only superpower that doesn't seem to be talking about it is the United States (except for Newt Gingrich). Indeed, the next space race may be about to begin, and thus far, America has been notably absent from the starting line. This needs to be rectified. America needs to rev its engine of innovation and take its position at the forefront.

It's okay to be skeptical. Such an endeavor would likely cost tens of billions of dollars and will undoubtedly meet with obstacles along the way. There has to be a good reason to engage in such a trek. Mining the moon for rare earth elements has been suggested, though this shouldn't be our primary objective. Such a materialistic goal should not be our motivation to partake in such a transcendent quest. Besides, mining the moon is currently quite uneconomical. Robert Beuford, a graduate student at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences has stated that mining the Moon would be like:

"...transporting thousands of tons of ore output from a remote mine in Canada to a processing facility in Brazil in the small passenger seat of a fighter jet, one of the least fuel efficient aircraft ever invented, while trying to maintain profitability in the mine. Now multiply that by a factor of 100,000."

No, the real reason why America should join in the upcoming space race is because we can't afford not to. Americans don't sit on the sidelines; we lead. We already do this militarily, so why shouldn't we do it in space?

Indeed, the United States has an opportunity to turn the next space race into the most important example of international cooperation the world has ever seen. By working with the space agencies of Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada, India, and yes, even China, we could avert a contentious space contest when it comes to colonizing the moon. History has shown that colonization without prior diplomatic discourse can have disastrous consequences. We don't want to repeat our mistakes on an intergalactic scale.

That's why reports that Russia is talking to NASA and the European Space Agency about building manned research colonies on the moon are so encouraging. It's a first step. 

Imagine what could be accomplished if the world's space superpowers pooled their resources to build an international space colony on the moon? The advancements for science and technology would surely be significant, but the advancements for global peace and prosperity would be far more resounding. Luna would cease to be merely a celestial satellite. Instead, it would become a quintessential symbol for peace and a reminder of what mankind can accomplish if we set aside our differences and work together. It would be plain to see and there to remind us all. All we'd have to do is look up.

Ross Pomeroy is the weekend editor of RealClearScience and contributor to the Newton Blog.