Up for Debate: Is a U.S.-China space race good for humanity?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been significant news coming from the international Space Race front. China’s Space Agency announced that it will be bringing samples of lunar soil back to Earth. It’s been over forty years since the last sample taken from the moon’s surface has been flown back. Over in the United States, NASA successfully managed a bit of interplanetary gymnastics as it navigated a satellite to an asteroid, touchdown for a few seconds, and managed to extract samples during that brief duration. Both developments have significant implications for the future of mining in outer space.

It also poses a number of important questions that will need to be thoroughly explored and answered. An episode of Intelligence Squared addressed the issue this past weekend, framing the issue in terms of whether a space race between the United States and China will benefit humanity.

As Intelligence Squared’s moderator John Donvan notes, “A potential trillion dollar market is now up for grabs, and Beijing’s ambitions are growing as are those of private entrepreneurs. Perhaps a new space race will kickstart what JFK once called the best of our energies and skills. But there are dangers. Competition between great powers could unleash new military posturing with grave consequences. It’s unclear how a new competition in space would unfold.”

Avi Loeb, physicist and longest serving chair at Harvard University, and Bidushi Bhattacharya, a former NASA scientist turned space industry entrepreneur, argue the case in favor of a U.S.-China space race.

Raji Rajopalan, a distinguished fellow and head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at the Oberver Research Foundation, and Michio Kaku, City College New York physicist and best-selling author, challenged the merits of an all-out battle for interplanetary dominance.

The debate touched on how commercial space travel and mining will develop, raising the very salient question about whether national regulations can be enforced in space when, technically, they end at a country’s border on Earth. Moreover, Loeb and Bhattacharya voiced concern that any attempt to tamp down on the space race will result in a slowdown in technological advances.

Most of the debate analyzed the U.S.-China space race in terms of nation-states and governments. As a result, the militarization of space took center stage. Notably, both Kaku and Rajopalan, argued that any competition between the two countries will almost inevitably devolve into increased nuclear tensions, if not an actual hot war. 

Interestingly, the space race issue came down to a question of regulation and whether there was any way of creating and enforcing a binding treaty between countries. Kaku, in particular, repeatedly referenced the U.S.-Soviet arms agreements signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev.

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