The Crew Dragon and America’s Space Ambitions

The American company SpaceX is about to launch a crewed spaceship with the goal of shuttling two astronauts to the International Space Station. *Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, this is the first time America has used a domestically manufactured spacecraft to carry American astronauts into space from U.S. soil.

Ever since the Apollo program ended, the focus of America’s space program has shifted toward the development of a space shuttle. There are fundamental differences between a space shuttle and the spacecraft that were developed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union back then, but the success of the space shuttle program is one of the highlights of the space technology that America developed during the Cold War.

But the reality doesn’t measure up to the perfection we expected. While it has achieved great technical success, the space shuttle program has completely failed to hit cost targets. Cutting-edge reusable technology has created high maintenance costs and complex servicing procedures, and of course the entire system has significant vulnerabilities. In 2003, a piece of fuel tank insulation foam hit the outside of the Columbia space shuttle during launch, which ultimately led the craft to disintegrate upon reentry into the atmosphere.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, international space travel became a “one superpower, many great powers”kind of situation,** and the U.S. is undoubtedly the No. 1 superpower when it comes to space travel. But this “superpower” strayed down the wrong path with the space shuttle program − not only did 14 astronauts pay the ultimate price, but America has also relied for a considerable length of time on the Russian Soyuz space shuttle in order to rotate its members on and off the International Space Station. In the nine years since the space shuttle’s retirement, not one American spacecraft has shuttled an American astronaut, which is more than a little embarrassing.

As a result, America has continued to try to adapt. From proclaiming a return to the moon by 2024, to the establishment of a “Space Force,” to leveraging allies in an attempt to seize lunar resources, the Trump administration appears to have plenty of ambition in the domain of space travel. In fact, they are hardly even making an effort to conceal their desire to monopolize space travel − despite their outward assertions that the U.S. is purely interested in ”defending space assets.“

The launch of the Crew Dragon is likely to be a historic event.

First, if the Crew Dragon, alongside Boeing’s Starliner, starts to offer consistent low-orbit manned launch service, America will be one step closer to realizing its ambitions for exclusivity in the domain of space travel.

Second, America has a strong “opposing force” in its pursuit of space flight, and China has also been the main “opposing force” in America’s crosshairs − from tariffs targeting China, to the rejection of academic visas, to all manner of objectionable actions.*** If the United State successfully completes another independent manned space flight mission, the current atmosphere could get even worse.

In actuality, this is the political prejudice and delusional paranoia that plagues some Americans. Those who promote the idea of the “Chinese space threat” always ignore one key fact: China’s first successful satellite launch was in 1970, a year after America, in 1969, safely sent astronauts to the moon and back. The U.S. and China are fundamentally on two different playing fields when it comes to space flight. Furthermore, the two countries’ systems have developed in completely different directions.

Once again, by analyzing the trajectory of America’s space program development, we can clearly see the following: Advanced spaceflight technology is a must-have for China; it will require significant long-term, upfront investment; and this investment runs counter to traditional business intuition: It won’t make us money, there are no short-term returns. But after breaking through the tech barrier, the returns of space flight will be huge, and they will be “winner take all.”

Although we have already made great strides in space exploration, this is no time to stop and rest. Space flight is a glorious chapter in the advancement of human civilization, and China must not sink into the American fantasy of a new space race. The ultimate objective of Chinese space flight is to allow as many people as possible − Chinese people included − to benefit from spaceflight technology, and to avoid hegemonic bullying.

The author is a professional in the spaceflight science and technology industry.

*Editor’s note: SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts to the International Space Station on May 30, 2020.

**Translator’s note: This is a Chinese phrase that contrasts the Cold War’s “two superpowers” (America and the Soviet Union) with the post-Cold-War geopolitical reality, in which America is considered the top superpower alongside many other countries that are considered other great powers.

***Translator’s note: “Opposing force” is a military term that refers to a military unit tasked with representing the enemy for training purposes. The implication is that this is not a real enemy; in fact, the Chinese term translates literally to “imaginary enemy.”

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