On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, Harris Poll asked young people in the United States and China what they wanted to be when they grew up. The results were strange. Most American youth surveyed — the young people who belonged to the only country to have ever placed astronauts on the lunar surface — admitted that they wanted to be professional “Vlogger/YouTubers” when they grew up. It was the Chinese youth who overwhelmingly aspired to be astronauts.
Speaking to Chinese state media in 2018, the head of China’s lunar program, Ye Peijian, outlined the Chinese view of their national space strategy in explicit geopolitical terms, specifically in naval terminology:
“The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands [sic], Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t get there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough [to go to the moon and beyond].”
China made great wealth by becoming the world’s sweatshop in the 1970s and ’80s. Throughout the 1990s, it reinvested that wealth into building out the infrastructure needed to both support an enlarged middle class and to ensure that China moved up the international development ladder.
China’s leadership never intended to remain just an industrial power subordinated to the United States in the post-industrial, knowledge-based economy. China planned to become the dominant knowledge-based economy in the world. They have pioneered many innovations in the new industrial economy, notably 5G Internet, but are also heavily invested in quantum computing, biotech, alternative energy, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and space technologies.
For China, these new scientific innovations are not merely about making more money or even gaining a military edge over the West (Beijing certainly does care about those things). More than that, though, China yearns to displace the United States and dominant space power simply out of national pride.
By placing the first rover on the dark side of the moon as China did in 2019; or by being the first nation to construct a lunar colony or to land their taikonauts on Mars, China is telling the world that it is truly the leader in the knowledge-based economy. Their young people will be inspired and their country will become an even more important hub of scientific research and development — the cornerstone of any knowledge-based economy — while America declines.
The Americans in space, by comparison, are standing still.
Not only do fewer American youth dream of going to space (compared to their Chinese counterparts) but the United States government oscillates between indifference and abdication on the matter of space policy. Yes, President Donald J. Trump has developed a truly robust national space policy, both for the civilian and military sectors. Although, despite getting his landmark United States Space Force created by an act of Congress, the Trump space policy continues to meet stiff resistance — both from Congress and within the bureaucracy itself.
Senior Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have already stated that the administration’s ambitious plans to return American astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 will not be possible. Further, NASA’s director of manned spaceflight has poured cold water on the very notion of successfully returning astronauts to the moon before the decade is over. And without greater and consistently higher levels of funding, the Space Force will never mature into the robust force it must become to better defend American interests in the strategic high ground of space.
The future belongs to the country that wants it more. China has long ago embraced its own cultural heritage and has striven to reconnect with its history of nearly 5,000 years of greatness. Beijing is now pushing its people — and the Chinese themselves desire — toward greatness. This time, in the strategic high ground of space. China is beating the United States in the new space race because they recognize that we are racing each other, and they’re determined to win.
The Americans, though, have no idea what they want because their leaders are divided between the nationalist call to greatness and the globalist demand for mediocrity. Without the embrace of nationalism in the United States, the country’s national mission in space will end in failure. What’s more, its people will stop dreaming and its greatness will erode everywhere.
These are the stakes in the 2020 election for U.S. space policy. I, for one, choose space nationalism. How about you?
Brandon J. Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower.