Neil Armstrong brought the world to the moon. As the first man to tread on that rocky surface, he reminded us that this was not only an American achievement but another link in humanity’s aspirational chain. It was “one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”
That happened almost 50 years ago.
Lunar landings are now back in the news, not because the marginal scientific or symbolic value of the current missions is high for mankind on Earth. Rather, it’s because national pride is driving America’s strategic competitors to escape gravity.
China and Iran both are hard at work launching and lobbing rockets into space to show that America no longer has a monopoly on technological leadership. They are also using these blast-offs and landings to warn us of their ability to match and surpass America’s scientific prowess. For good measure, they also want to remind us that they can easily land a nuke on the U.S. homeland.
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If the Apollo program was the height of astronauts exhibiting the right stuff, the Beijing rocket program is looking like a perfect example of the wrong stuff.
The Chang’e-3 bears an incredible resemblance to NASA’s Lunar Landing Module, complete with gold foil wrapping and a hopped-up surface four-wheeler Rover. Unlike the American version of Apollo 11, the Chang’e 3 softly touched down on the moon’s surface without a human or a round-trip return capsule. The People’s Republic of China showed that it has the payload, targeting and finesse to fly a lander to the moon.
It is no small feat, but, by itself, also no big deal — except that the Communist-Party-led PRC has also been actively weaponizing what has otherwise evolved in both the United States and Russia as a globally collaborative civilian scientific program of space exploration and discovery.
Military competition was the driving force for space firsts during the Cold War. Russia launched an orbiting Sputnik, Laika the dog and Yuri Gagarin out of this world. America lagged, but soon bragged it would land a man on the moon by the end of ‘60s.
Cape Canaveral turned into the Kennedy Space Center as America matched and surpassed the Soviet Union. The USSR dissolved and so did the expensive arms race. Space became the global commons. Collaboration between people and nations in outer space became the call of the day, and it stayed that way even when U.S.-Russian relations became tense.
Now the equation has changed again, and the latest Chinese rocket launch is a new gauntlet thrown. Beijing, having suffered a “century of humiliation,” now is boldly telling its people and the world: “We’re back!” This year China surpassed the United States in the number of orbital launches.
Just a few weeks ago, on Pearl Harbor Day, China launched its Long March 3B rocket carrying a Chang’e-4 mission to Pink Floyd’s favorite destination — the dark side of the moon. That is a big deal. China’s universal ambition as a rising power is not just to expand its power on Earth, but to also extend its dominance above the highest ground, over the horizon and far into space.
China has successfully developed and tested anti-satellite missiles, knocking out one of its own weather satellites and creating a trail of space debris dangerous to other orbiting vessels. There was great international outcry, but the Chinese’s message was clear — that the PRC maintains the technical prowess, materiel capacity and the national will to take down satellites and systems on which the globalized economy depends.
Space has long been militarized with surveillance, communications and navigational satellites orbiting the earth, but concerns that the orbital sanctuary will be weaponized have resurfaced with China’s recent activities.
Space Force may be derided as another of President Trump’s fantastical pronouncements, but the concept is not a new one. During Ronald Reagan’s time in office, Dr. Edward Teller was a proponent of a space-based system that would change the equation of the U.S.-Soviet arms race. For Reagan and Teller, the Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars,” was both a technological military advance and a bargaining chip to force the Soviets to the nuclear-weapons negotiating table.
Star Wars was the stick. The carrot was that these systems would neutralize the threat of nuclear weapons. Reagan went so far as to make the vague promise that once America had successfully developed these systems, they would be shared with the world to effectively eliminate the nuclear threat worldwide.
Reagan’s fear of nuclear weapons was very real. He felt that space-based systems could circumvent or eliminate the prevailing nuclear defense doctrine known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), a doctrine he considered a global suicide pact. What motivates China’s party-state to reach for the stars?
In the next few days, China’s Chang’e 4 will attempt its landing on the moon’s far side with an eye to potentially colonizing space. Will China’s current hyper-accelerated space program ultimately allow peace to rule the planets and love to steer the stars?
This is the dawning of a new space age.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D., is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of “Spin Wars & Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence Gathering.”