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If you care about the US, root for China to score a win in space

It can be argued that members of Congress and presidents sometimes appear to put their personal re-elections before all else — occasionally, this happens even at the expense of the long-term welfare of America. For politicians who view their lives and personal advancement in increments of two-, four- and six-year windows, tangible, immediate vote-influencing issues tend to dominate their policy decisions. 

Space rarely has been one of those issues.     

Few in Congress, and few presidents, have viewed space — and our ongoing competition with China and Russia for preeminence in that important arena — as a “tangible issue” that must be addressed urgently. They’ve tended to see it as a back-burner problem with no constituent votes attached to solving it.     

But there is historical evidence showing that our leaders in Washington can be shocked into putting the critical need for America’s preeminence in space back on the front burner. Consider the basketball-sized satellite, named Sputnik, that Russia launched on Oct. 4, 1957. As that tiny satellite achieved orbit and began beeping its signal back to Earth, fear and foreboding began to ripple through the Eisenhower White House and the offices of Congress. “If the Russians can launch a satellite,” politicians of that day correctly surmised, “surely they can launch an intercontinental ballistic missile with a warhead attached.”

Visions of an uncertain and risky future without the United States operating in space then dominated their senses. Soon they made the decision that our nation simply could not afford to cede space and its many advantages to the Russians.     

It’s a belief that President Kennedy put the exclamation point on five years later, when he spoke about the new space age: “We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. … In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves, as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”

That was then; this is now. Today, many of our politicians oriented toward short-term decisions apparently have not heard Kennedy’s lesson. And the People’s Republic of China did not get the memo, either.

This week, China launched three of its astronauts — “taikonauts” — to its space station in Earth’s orbit. This is the same China that became the first nation to land a rover on the far side of the moon and just landed a rover on Mars. This is the same China that has proclaimed it intends to establish a base on the moon. China’s human spaceflight program is controlled by its military, and for years, China has targeted U.S. satellites in low and geosynchronous orbit while war-gaming how to destroy them.      

You see, China views space as the ultimate high ground and does seem to be intent on eventual domination in that arena, from just above the Earth’s atmosphere to the orbit of Mars. In 2019, former Vice President Mike Pence spoke about this growing threat, saying in part, “Make no mistake about it, we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.”

How correct he was. Unfortunately, Pence no longer is part of the two-, four- and six-year politician club. He’s back to being a private citizen.     

The Biden administration and many members of Congress appear to have placed American preeminence in space back on the rear burner, or they’ve knocked it off the stove entirely. They’re seeking to allocate more of NASA’s space budget to climate change and other issues.

That is certainly their right, but it’s shortsighted in the face of what China is accomplishing and planning in space at the expense of our national and economic security. Knowing that, perhaps only another “Sputnik-panic” moment will galvanize our nation into action. And if that’s the case, you can be sure that China will be only too happy to provide it.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

Tags China Human spaceflight Mike Pence NASA Russia Space exploration Space race

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