Image courtesy of Euronews.
The space race is a common and overly simplistic depiction of the international competition for some great space endeavour. Today’s competition for the moon is also depicted as being a race, when in fact it is a long-term competition over whose economic system is capable of outlasting all of the others.
The aim of this competition is not to be first, as though returning to the moon is the space equivalent of a 100 metre sprint, but who can sustain a viable presence on the moon the longest, not too dissimilar to a decathlon.
The space competition during the Cold War is a prime example of how the racing narrative can lead us astray. The Soviet Union and the United States were locked into a technological competition with each other to put the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik), the first human being into space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first human on the moon (Neil Armstrong). Yes, there were occasional sprints within the wider competition for these firsts, but when we look back from a larger perspective they actually did not matter. The Soviet Union was the first to launch an orbiting satellite and a human being into space, but ultimately lost the competition. The United Stars, despite being second to the Soviets at the outset of the Space Age, ultimately prevailed in the competition when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on to the lunar surface.
Fast forward to the 2020s and the racing narrative is back in vogue, not just in the media but also among senior officials – some of whom should know better. The Western media in particular is breathlessly characterising the competition between the United States and China to return humans to the moon as a race. And politicians, such as NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson, has all but made it a race with some recent comments speculating what might happen should China return humans to the moon before the U.S.
The media’s use of the racing metaphor, while inaccurate, is at least understandable. Editors often seek to make salacious or dramatic headlines out of otherwise prosaic stories to sell copy in a tough and crowded media market. Politicians, on the other hand, often employ the racing metaphor as red meat for a fired-up base or to curry domestic political favour. The problem, however, is to assume that racing rhetoric, while inaccurate and even irritating, is ultimately harmless. It isn’t, and not necessarily for reasons that some might assume. Racing rhetoric leads decision makers to misunderstand the character of the competition at hand, make rash policies as a result, that, in turn, lead to unsustainable levels of funding.
International space competition has become an important aspect of global great power politics, especially among great powers. Some critics argue that international space competition is strategically destabilizing and could lead to war. In reality it is a safety valve among nuclear-armed powers that diverts resources and talent into a less deadly and dangerous form of competition. Better to compete to return humans to the moon than with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. As Deganit Paikowsky, the renowned scholar of space and international relations, points out in her 2017 book, The Power of the Space Club:
Research and development of space technology is similar in many ways to research and development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons technology. This led the superpowers to use space exploration and technology as a somewhat peaceful substitute for obtaining and demonstrating power and global leadership. (pp. 8-9)
To characterize today’s competition for the return of human beings to the moon as a ‘race’ is not only incorrect but is also liable to force politicians to back up their own heated rhetoric with inappropriate policy and budget prescriptions. If Senator Nelson is not careful, especially in a divided Washington, DC, he may find that appropriators will defund the Artemis program once the first Americans in well over fifty years return to the moon. Why? Well, because policy makers, having convinced themselves that it is a race to return to the moon, will convince themselves that a returned human crew is the end of the race and the job is done.
The whole character of the competition to return humans to the moon is not a race to be first but a competition to demonstrate who can sustain a human presence on the moon the longest. Judging by the uncharacteristically restrained rhetoric of China on this matter it could be that Beijing gets this point. Among the media and political classes in Washington, however, it’s far from evident that this important point is well understood.
In reality the Chinese space programme is so far behind that of the United States, despite making impressive strides over the past few decades, that it is highly unlikely it will send a crewed mission to the moon before the United States. As things currently stand the United Stars will most likely be the first to return humans to the surface of the moon because it has most of the infrastructure and capabilities already in place, or nearing completion. China is far from ready when compared to the U.S., but even if U.S. astronauts are the first to return to the moon, American lawmakers should understand that it will not be the end of the competition – instead, it will only have begun and China will not be dissuaded to pursue its own lunar ambitions.
As in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the United States should focus on the long game when it comes to Lunapolitics. The rhetoric of a moon race reveals a mystifying lack of faith in America’s already impressive capabilities, a temptation to make rash policies, and a willingness to authorize unsustainable funding for a short-term, tactical gain of being “first” in a race that doesn’t even exist.