Are we in the middle of a new space race for this century?

Every week, the readers of our space newsletter, The Airlock, send in their questions for space reporter Neel V. Patel to answer. This week: the new space race. 

I am curious about the major players in space exploration today. Usually we see NASA and other US companies in the news, but ESA [European Space Agency] is also generating headlines. China, as I know, participates actively as well, and there is also India and Israel.

What is the power balance between all these parties? Is there some form of a “race” going on between them, or is there more collaboration? —Emily

The space age began as a race to the moon between the US and the Soviet Union, with the US pulling off a come-from-behind win when the Apollo 11 crew walked on the surface of the moon in 1969. Since then, people have constantly talked about what the next big space race will be, and who might be the major players. But the space industry is no longer just two national programs vying for dominance. It’s more complicated than ever before.

The US remains the preeminent space power in the world, but China, unconstrained by any kind of legislative tussles over funding, has poured an insane amount of money into its space program in the last couple of decades. The country has run its own crewed space station program since 2012. It’s landed two spacecraft on the moon and has another one launching in 2020. And it will also send a rover to Mars next summer. NASA’s Artemis lunar program was arguably spurred by China’s public desires to go to the moon as well––not simply to visit, but to establish a permanent presence. So to that extent, yes, there’s a new space race involving China and the US.

But again, the race is more complicated than that. Next decade, Russia wants to send people to the moon as well. So do ESA and Japan, though these agencies are much more likely to work in collaboration with others. As you mentioned, Israel and India have their own lunar ambitions, although they are much farther behind, and would have to settle for a smaller share of the prestige. 

There are also private companies all over the world, from SpaceX to Blue Origin to iSpace to others, with their own ambitions to go to the moon. These companies aren’t necessarily driven by the same kinds of geopolitical goals as the national programs, but instead by a desire to make money. So you could also argue there’s a race to the moon happening within the private industry as well.

And the moon is just one (very small) part of space. All the aforementioned countries would love to be the first to get to Mars. In fact, SpaceX could be the first group to send people to the Red Planet, beating out even NASA.

With a broader look at space, you could potentially identify dozens of other races brewing in other sectors. Different countries have different priorities: some want to dominate the communications sector; others want to be a cubesat manufacturing capital for the world; others are interested in remote sensing and Earth observation.

For all these reasons, I’m personally skeptical about contextualizing space as a race of some kind between two or more parties. There is a lot happening within the space industry, and all of it is interconnected. There’s constant collaboration between different groups, and even between rivals (like the US and Russia). Different parties are definitely competing for certain achievements, but don’t let that trick you into believing there’s a single goal everyone is running toward.