We Are Not in a New International Space Race

After reading "The “Asian Space Race” and China’s solar system exploration: domestic and international rationales", written by a space policy student at GW, I decided that I needed to write a response refuting this and all similar articles on the net.

The US is not in a space race with China, the asiatic countries are not in a space race with each other, and neither Europe nor Russia is in a space race with anybody else.

How do you identify a space race? The space race of the 60's was a period of rapid development, high funding levels, and excessive risk-taking. Sure there were grand visions and political pageantry as well, but that is not strictly characteristic of the space race. Talk is cheap and everybody does it. If you want to determine whether anyone is actually in a space race today, look at funding levels and launch frequency.

Chart of NASA budget indicating spending surge during the space race

At the beginning of the space race, NASA saw annual budget increases ranging from 57% to 190%. I don't have time to do the research myself, but according to this Business Insider article, China's space program has been growing by about 10% annually, but is still below the level US space expenditures as a percentage of national budget.

The race described in articles like "The Asian Space Race" is more of a powerpoint/animation race. Deckware, vaporware, and "visions" do not legitimize the theory of a new international contest. They provide evidence of a desire to compete, but they do not indicate that competitiveness in space is taking a new primacy over more traditional domestic or defense spending. There is no race until there is a major increase in funding and flown hardware.

We are not in a space race. The world is experiencing a period of global modernization, and part of that process is the development of civilian and military space capabilities. This is a slow process of steady improvements which does not resemble the space race of the 60's.

© Peter Brandt 2019 | all images in public domain unless otherwise stated