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China Is Winning the Space Race

Shenzhou 10, however, represents more than a pricey technological ornament for nationalists with a chip on their shoulders. China now has what the United States lacks: a reliable manned spacecraft. The United States finds itself in the preposterous situation of depending on Russia to transport personnel and much of the cargo to and from the ISS. Underfunding and poor planning means that the same nation that once landed men on the Moon can no longer launch anyone into orbit. The United States' best hope is that the private firm SpaceX, which NASA has contracted to supply cargo to the ISS, will eventually be able to transport U.S. astronauts as well. Shenzhou 10 is a reminder that for at least the next few years, space is only accessible via a Russian or Chinese rocket. No wonder that astronauts from the European Space Agency are learning Chinese. 

If Beijing is intent on besting the West, a manned landing on Mars -- extremely risky but possible with today's technology -- could help secure China's place as the foremost spacefaring power. Establishing a permanent manned Moon base, however, would be a more attractive goal -- and one that allows China to minimize the scientific and medical barriers present in low-Earth orbit. The spectacle of second-tier spacefaring states lining up to request permission to station personnel or supply components for the base would be an enormous boost to China's status. And it's not all that ridiculously far-fetched: a permanent Moon base would probably only cost something comparable to that of the ISS --approximately $5 billion a year. Granted, the Moon is farther away than the Earth's orbit, but most of the fuel used in transporting people and materials to space is for freeing them from the Earth's gravity. Additionally, the Moon possesses ice, which can be turned in water and oxygen -- resources which have to be hauled up from Earth for a space station. In any case, excluding Americans from this moon base would be revenge served very, very cold. 

But there is much more to be gained from a Moon base than satisfying honor. Remember that manned space missions are an escape from a perceived geopolitical encirclement, comparable to that felt by German political and military elites in the late 19th century. Berlin's solution was to build a blue-water navy and colonize parts of Africa. Establishing a Moon base would not only represent an escape from perceived terrestrial encirclement, but also be the effective occupation necessary to assert territorial sovereignty in international law. Granted, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty expressly prohibits extraterrestrial annexations. However, if China emerges as the leading spacefaring power, it will have the opportunity and motive to rewrite the international legal regime for space. In its territorial disputes back on Earth, Beijing insists on its own interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. What would prevent it from being even more assertive if it becomes the only spacefaring power with boots on the regolith?

The next big milestone is China's plan to establish its own space station by 2020 -- which happens to be the same year that the International Space Station is scheduled to be scrapped and sunk into the ocean. In the long run, Shenzhou 10 may determine the terms under which the spacefaring powers compete on the final frontier. One of many ancient names for China is Tianchao -- the Celestial Empire. Shenzhou 10 may be pointing the way toward its creation.


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