‘We’re falling behind’: 2022 seen as a pivotal lap in the space race with China

“I trust how we will use space to be good not only for the United States but also for the world,” he added in an interview. “But I don’t trust others to do that.”

China is showing no signs of slowing its pace to outperform the US and other powers in space transportation and exploration, say current and former space industry officials and experts.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear how dominant China wants to be in space and the space economy,” said Steve Kwast, lieutenant general and retired Air Force space strategist. “They see the profit margin, they see the economic sources of income, and they see the national security implications.”

The competition will unfold in myriad ways in 2022 that could ultimately determine which country wins the upper hand.

Who will be a traffic cop?

A big question is who will lead the global space industry in coping with the historic growth of satellites, which are increasingly at risk of colliding with orbital debris – or with each other – if not better coordinated.

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“It’s getting harder and harder to classify, and its importance continues to grow and grow rapidly,” said Dan Dumbacher, president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “The US is a leader in this area and we want to be one step ahead of this conversation to make sure it is going in a good direction.”

But before Washington takes on a bigger role worldwide, it must finally clarify which US authorities are responsible, be it the Department of Commerce or the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses space launches.

This is one of the items on the agenda facing Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the National Space Council, which held its first meeting earlier this month.

“I haven’t seen much of the desire in this administration to take the essential steps necessary to first decide which agency will be responsible for it … and then fund it properly,” said Robert Walker, former GOP chairman of the science committee of the house.

“Part of that is a problem on Capitol Hill,” he added. “It’s a jurisdiction battle between a couple of chairmen on Capitol Hill.”

But a lot is at stake. “We’re falling behind,” said Walker, who is now the head of moonWalker Associates, a space consultancy firm. “The danger is that someone like China will develop its system for it and the world will rally around it.”

Weapons in space

The recent Russian anti-satellite weapon test was a clear reminder of the consequences of unregulated low-earth orbit.

“It’s a problem that is only going to get worse,” predicted Rand Simberg, a space policy analyst. “We can’t go on blowing things up on purpose. This Russian test wreaked havoc. “

Walker also predicts “ongoing challenges from China and likely an increase in attacks by China and Russia on our space infrastructure,” including electronic attacks on satellites.

He sees it as an ominous sign that China is unfounded Complaint to the UN this month that SpaceX’s mega-constellation of Starlink communications satellites is designed to threaten China’s nearby space station.

“I think that means they intend to hunt down some of our commercial and military space resources,” Walker said. “We need to fund the research we are doing into advanced weapons to avert this challenge.”

China’s this year’s test of a hypersonic missile orbiting Earth was also widely viewed as a demonstration of its growing technological ability to hold American space resources hostage.

“The Space Force is looking for a better idea every day and the need to have someone up there to guarantee freedom of action … and keep trade routes free, if you will,” said Paul Stimers, a space lobbyist at K&L Gates.

The moon race

Many of the technological breakthroughs being pursued on both sides are aimed at placing stakes on the moon to pave the way for a long-term presence that could support commercial ventures.

China operates the first robotic spacecraft on the other side of the moon and is also Working on your own lander for human missions to the lunar surface.

The timeline for NASAs Artemis program The return of astronauts to the lunar surface has already been postponed for at least a year until 2025.

A linchpin of NASA’s lunar effort is the Space Launch System, the Boeing-built mega-missile that has been plagued by years of delays and cost overruns and is finally set to complete its first test flight in 2022.

“Whether we make a successful SLS flight or not … is going to require attention,” said Walker.

He added that challenges with engines and other components left an open question, “Do we even have the infrastructure to make the second and third flights? I see these as issues that will blow upwards in 2022. “

Many will also ride on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which is said to be the first commercial rocket capable of going to the moon and beyond. It is scheduled to make its first orbital test flight in early 2022.

The US lunar program has international partners in the form of the Artemis Agreement, which now covers more than a dozen countries. But Russia and China, which operate a lunar research station, are also looking for partners.

Stimers says whether space becomes increasingly democratized depends heavily on who goes down the road.

“I think this is where the Artemis Accords came into play,” he said. “By working with our various international partners to develop a range of norms and expectations of behavior both on the moon and beyond, we are trying to build a regime that focuses on justice and openness.”

“Internationally, people have a very clear choice to make,” he added. “You can tell whether [the Artemis Accords] are a square deal or a deal that benefits the United States more than the other participants. And they can also look at what China is doing and has done and whether that turns out to be stuffy or not. I absolutely assume that this will be one of the big stories in 2022. “

Can diplomacy work?

Few observers see prospects for new formal treaties setting international rules for space.

But 2022 could determine whether progress can be made on what many believe is the next best thing: agreed “norms of behavior” among leading space powers that will reduce the likelihood of conflict in orbit and help keep space sustainable for years to come.

A new focus is on an ongoing diplomatic process at the United Nations. The General Assembly on Christmas Eve made a resolution on the subject of “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior”.

“They will meet four times – twice this spring and then twice in 2023 – with the idea that they will come to some kind of consensus-driven document on norms of behavior,” said Victoria Samson, director of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation and space security specialist .

The fact that the process is behavioral rather than technology-centered – like trying to ban certain classes of weapons, long considered non-starters – is a sign, according to Samson, that there may be some overlapping interests.

“I think it’s really encouraging because it shows there is an interest in moving forward and dealing with space security threats,” she said.

Moran, who is also a member of the Defense Resources Panel, hopes the diplomatic process can move forward in 2022.

“This is one of the reasons we need to be successful in space quickly as the incentive to reach these agreements increases,” he said. “When our technologies are superior – or at least no less than those of China, Russia, or anyone else – there is a greater incentive for those countries to try to meet these standards.”

Zhanna Malekos Smith, a space researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, warns that the hurdles are high.

She pointed out that there are already several “multilateral mechanisms” in place to regulate behavior in orbit, including the Space Debris Containment Guidelines developed by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

“However, despite these joint efforts, states are still conducting destructive anti-satellite weapons tests,” she said.

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