US and China’s Competing Space Programs Drive Investment in Space Technology

In recent years, the rivalry between the United States and China has extended into the realm of space exploration. Both nations are vying for dominance in the new space race, particularly in their efforts to return to the moon. NASA Chief Bill Nelson has emphasized the importance of the United States getting there first, highlighting the memories of the past space race with the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

However, in contrast to the previous era, NASA is now collaborating with private companies to carry out more of the work. Nelson praises the involvement of private firms such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, citing the benefits of cost-sharing and the creative input of entrepreneurs in the private sector. SpaceX, for instance, was awarded a $3 billion contract to build a lunar lander and has developed the most powerful rocket to date. These partnerships have led to a significant infusion of government funding into these companies, driving their growth and technological advancements.

The rivalry with China is a driving force behind NASA’s increased investment in space technology. China has made impressive advancements in its space program, including having its own space station, returning moon samples to Earth, and plans to explore the polar regions of the lunar surface. Bill Nelson expresses concerns about China’s potential territorial claims in space and points to China’s actions in the South China Sea as evidence of their intentions. Furthermore, he notes that China has not signed the US-led Artemis Accords, which aim to establish best practices in space exploration.

The competition between the US and China has spurred significant investment by NASA. The agency’s spending in 2021 alone was valued at $71.2 billion, a 10.7% increase compared to the previous year. While major players like SpaceX receive widespread attention, a substantial portion of NASA’s spending goes towards supporting small businesses. This government funding has the potential to accelerate the growth of startups and attract private investments, creating a robust space ecosystem.

The impact of this rivalry extends beyond the race to the moon. Space-related activities have witnessed a surge in recent years, driven in part by SpaceX’s influence in the industry. The proliferation of satellites orbiting Earth has created new opportunities and industries reliant on the data they provide. Sectors such as agriculture, insurance, and maritime industries are utilizing satellite data for a range of applications. Investment firm Space Capital attributes this diversification of the space economy to SpaceX’s commercial flights, which shifted the market from government dominance to private sector participation.

RocketLab, a New Zealand-based company, is another major player shaping the space economy. With 40 launches completed for customers including NASA, RocketLab is positioning itself as a viable alternative to SpaceX. The company’s founder, Peter Beck, envisions opportunities beyond Earth, estimating a $10 billion opportunity in launch services, a $30 billion opportunity in satellite infrastructure, and an $830 billion opportunity in applications. These estimates align with projections from investment bank Morgan Stanley, which predicts that the global space industry could be worth over $1 trillion per year by 2040.

Looking ahead, both Nelson and Beck emphasize the potential for further business activity in space, particularly in low Earth orbit. Medical research and the manufacturing of fiber optics in zero gravity are among the areas of interest. Collaboration between government agencies, private companies, and startups will continue to drive innovation and advancements in space technology, benefiting not only the US and China but also the broader global economy.