The 21st Century Space Race is Not Between Billionaires

By: Daniel Mantzoor, October 28, 2021

A new generation of space exploration has arrived. The latest iteration of spacefaring, however, appears to bear little resemblance to its cold-war era counterpart; or so it may seem. 

Dubbed the “billionaire space race,” Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos And Richard Branson have rapidly changed the landscape in space exploration. Branson’s Virgin Galactic made headlines in July after sending Branson himself and five others to the edge of space. Days Later, fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos briefly exited earth’s atmosphere aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard. The Blue Origin launch marked the “world’s first unpiloted space flight with an all-civilian crew.” Upon return, both expressed their desire to open up space flight to the civilian populace.  

SpaceX still leads the pack in contributions to modern space exploration. Founded by Musk in 2002, SpaceX has surpassed NASA in the public imagination. The Falcon 9 launch in 2015 marked the first vertical take-off and propulsive landing for an orbital rocket. In 2020, SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts into orbit. Musk’s side-venture Starlink is poised to bring commercial internet service across the globe. And just for good measure, SpaceX is more than keeping up with its rivals in the commercial space business. On September 15, 2021, billionaire Jared Isaacman spent three days in orbit aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Spacecraft. 

The media is predictably eating this narrative up. The prospect of privately-run corporations, funded by tech and investor magnates, guiding the human race into space is as sensational as it is controversial. With each rocket that is sent soaring into orbit, another set of media think pieces makes the rounds. Many in the media are sharp in their disapproval, lamenting the private space race as symbolic of capitalism’s ills. Others are incredibly encouraged by private space exploration, lauding Musk and company for bringing private enterprise into the space race. There is truth to both of these narratives; we should be equally concerned and optimistic about the new age of space exploration. But as the debates rage on, a true “space race” – one much more recognizable than the current billionaire variety – is quickly taking shape. 

China, not a handful of billionaires, represents a true player and threat in the 21st century space-race. While Musk and Bezos have been capturing headlines, China has been quietly making strides. China’s launched the main module for its new space station in April of 2021. Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace,” is now one of only two space stations in Earth’s lower orbit. Meanwhile, the International Space Station (ISS), jointly developed by the United States and Russia, may be nearing the end of its life in 2025. In 2019, China became the first nation to land a probe on the far side of the moon. A year later, China sent another probe to the moon, collecting several pounds of rock and soil. China hopes these missions will pave the way for a lunar research base by 2030. Even in the race to Mars, China is not far behind. Tianwen, China’s Mars mission, successfully landed a craft on the red planet in May of 2021. And China’s ambitions don’t stop there. The country is already in the works to collect asteroid samples, send orbiters to Venus and Jupiter, and launch an orbiting telescope much like the Hubble.

Most concerning, Russia, a longstanding partner to the U.S. in space, seems to be joining forces with the Chinese. Russia and China have already teamed up to send a probe to an asteroid by 2024. They’re also collaborating to construct a lunar research base on the south pole of the moon by 2030. Rising political tensions are certainly a factor. Dmitri O. Rogozin, Director of Russia’s Space Agency, cited U.S. sanctions as contributing to decisions to withdraw Russian support. U.S. and Chinese cooperation in the future is unlikely. The Wolf Amendment, passed by Congress in 2011, prohibits using federal funds for bilateral cooperation with China.

The “billionaire space race” is an eye-catching title, but it fails to describe the true state of 21st century space exploration. Musk, Bezos, and Branson may operate under different banners, but they ultimately represent the same ideological coterie. The media must take notice, as public awareness is crucial if the U.S. wishes compete this century. Private enterprise offers tremendous opportunity, but public support and funding may be necessary to stave off Chinese advances. 

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