American Enterprise Will Beat China in Outer Space

"China is best placed to win a space race, given its well-coordinated, disciplined, technocratic system, able to set and maintain long-term goals," gloomily predicted a recent Washington Post editorial.  Yet current Chinese practice and American history show that precisely America's ability to harness private enterprise for national interests will be the decisive element that will enable the United States to dominate space.

China's January 2 historic first of landing a rover on the Moon's dark side occasioned the editorial, which noted that "China aims to be the leading space power by 2045."  Indeed, others have observed that China "today launches more rockets into space than any other country—39 last year, compared to 31 by the United States, 20 by Russia and eight by Europe."  Nonetheless, China only spent in 2017 an estimated $8.4 billion on space programs, far less than America's $48 billion.

Not just these figures, but also growing Chinese private sector utilization call into question the editorial's argument that "[i]n the United States, the discussion on space exploitation is led by a disorganized commercial sector."  China's secretive space program has been opening to private enterprise since 2014, contrary to what others have noted as the myth that "Chinese aerospace industry is a handful of huge, state-owned companies that do everything."  This situation reflects that the "space race of old was between governments, but we may be on the brink of a 21st century private space race on an international scale."

For example, the New York Times reports that "miniaturization of rockets and spacecraft places outer space within reach of a broader swath of the economy," as some 150 startups are now launching rockets just 56 feet tall.  Similarly, famed physicist and futurist Michio Kaku has noted that India launched in 2013 a Mars orbiter for $70 million while the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster space movie The Martian cost $100 million to produce.  Meanwhile Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic intends to introduce space tourism in 2019.

In a manner more worrying than flattering, China is emulating America's public sector as well, as military objectives have caused China to imitate America's building of the large Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.  China's Long March-9 rocket is projected to carry 140 tons into low-Earth orbit by 2030.  The National Aeronautics and Space Agency's (NASA) SLS will carry 130 tons upon becoming operational in 2020.  

Former Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who was among the last Americans to walk the moon in 1972, has noted SLS's importance.  "Establishing a continuous human presence on the Moon and Mars will be among humanity's greatest achievements, but there is only one modern rocket specifically designed for such complex missions," namely SLS.  Thus SLS "is an important part of making America great," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has stated.

Such factors compel American public-private space partnerships as described by Hudson Institute scholar Arthur Herman.  Americans facing China "need a comprehensive national strategy that harnesses America's private-sector innovation and efficiency to a set of clear national goals in the high-tech arena."  Experts familiar with American space industry concur that it will "be crucial for public agencies to leverage and utilize the emerging technology that's already being developed in the private sector."

Herman has analyzed the various advantages the public and private sectors bring to high technology development like space programs.  Americans "still have a private IT sector that thrives on innovation and risk-taking, neither of which the Chinese excel at (yet)."  In the "new age of space," however, "there are still things government does best, because it can muster more critical resources—technological, scientific, and monetary—than the market can readily supply."

Herman's monumental study, "Freedom's Forge:  How American Business Produced Victory in World War II," provides a historic template for a modern America seeking to win in space.  As reviewers like Steve Forbes have noted, when war broke out in 1939, the American "military barely matched that of the Netherlands."  By war's end in 1945 the United States had manufactured about 70 percent of all Allied war material, more production than all other combatants combined.  

Entrepreneurs such as Andrew Higgins made the war-winning weapons like landing craft that propelled America's rise to a superpower.  As Herman has noted, unlike in the Soviet Union no command economy directed American workers and businesses in their fulfillment of government military contracts.  Rather the "real industrial miracle was the American free enterprise system turned loose on a major project." 

"Free markets, not big government, are the true source of America's incredible strength," Forbes has learned from Herman.  Americans should remember this lesson when they consider his warning that in space and elsewhere they currently "are in a race with China for high-tech supremacy that we and our democratic allies can't afford to lose."  Yet America's free market arsenal of democracy beat totalitarians both in World War II and in the Cold War space race, and promises to do so again in the coming space competition with China.

If you experience technical problems, please write to