Moonshot vs. Long March: Contrasting the United States’s and China’s Space Programs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 21

The Hyperbola-2 descending back to Earth. (Source: iSpace WeChat)

On the morning of November 2, 2023, the Gobi Desert’s silence was shattered: From a remote launchpad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (中国酒泉卫 星发射中心), the Hyperbola-2 (双曲线二号), a slender rocket bearing the iSpace emblem (星际荣耀), surged upwards, before gracefully alighting back on Earth (iSpace WeChat, November 2; CNSA, November 2). This suborbital hop marked a major achievement for iSpace as the company progresses towards developing reusable medium-lift rockets. The test demonstrated key technologies like the methalox engine and landing capabilities that will enable iSpace’s larger reusable rocket plans with Hyperbola-3. In China’s rapidly growing commercial space industry, iSpace, alongside other ambitious startups like Galactic Energy (星河动力), CAS Space (中科宇航探索技术), and Deep Blue Aerospace (深蓝航天), are striving to replicate the success of American pioneers such as SpaceX (Galactic Energy WeChat, July 24; CAS Space WeChat, April 4; Deep Blue Aerospace WeChat, May 7, 2022). Their goal: to revolutionize orbital access with reusable rocket technology.

The success on November 2 was more than an engineering accomplishment; it was a testament to China’s emerging “innovation power”—its capacity to create, adopt, and seamlessly integrate new technologies (Foreign Affairs, February 28; US House of Representatives, May 17). This successful launch marks not just a step forward in technological capability but also a strategic shift in the global space race. With a unique mix of state guidance and entrepreneurial zeal, China is charting an alternate path in space exploration, contrasting sharply with the United States’s focus on private sector innovation.

As the United States and China advance their respective space programs, their differing approaches are reshaping the landscape of space leadership. While America champions private sector innovation, China exerts centralized state control. Yet amidst an increasingly congested orbital environment, it is clear that the future trajectory of space exploration hinges not solely on innovation itself, but specifically on the capacity for nations to effectively combine government direction with commercial dynamism. The country that strikes this balance will harness the strengths of both its public and private sectors to accelerate advancement, and will be positioned to spearhead humanity’s future in the final frontier.

The American Model: Public-Private Partnerships Unleash Innovation

Since the Moon landings, America’s human spaceflight program has faded from public prominence. However, this lull obscures an entrepreneurial revival that is now gaining momentum. The retirement of the Space Shuttle pushed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into public-private partnerships with firms like SpaceX and Blue Origin to conduct commercial resupply missions and crew activities (NASA, accessed November 14). These private firms pioneered reusable rocket technology, slashing launch costs dramatically. For SpaceX’s Falcon 9, costs dropped 95 percent from $65,000 per kilogram to just $1,500 (CSIS, September 1, 2022).

The fall of launch prices and the rise of incentives like the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, XPRIZE contests, and government challenges catalyzed commercial space growth across launch capabilities, satellite technology, robotics, and in-orbit manufacturing (51 USC, 2015; XPRIZE, accessed November 14; NASA, November 7). Once the sole domain of governments, the commercial space sector is now courted by hedge funds, billionaires, and even amateur rocketeers (Bloomberg, January 20; Bloomberg, July 16, 2021; Wired, May 22, 2019). To date, the Falcon 9 has completed 272 launches and 230 landings (SpaceX, accessed November 14), and the number of objects launched into space annually—whether it be satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecraft, or space station flight elements—has spiked by 400 percent globally and 600 percent in the United States since 2019 alone (UNOOSA, September 29). SpaceX may launch more satellites by 2030 than the rest of humanity combined has since Sputnik first orbited Earth in 1957 (ESA ESOC, April 20, 2022; Business Insider, August 9).

While this entrepreneurial revival shows promise, challenges remain in channeling the commercial dynamism effectively. Minimal oversight has created a “Wild West” environment, raising concerns over congestion, debris, and military operations in Earth’s orbit. Technically daunting and capital-intensive efforts like asteroid mining still face hurdles from the high costs and risks that have stymied previous attempts (Technology Review, June 26, 2019). The industry’s reliance on government contracts pending profitable operations leaves it prone to boom-bust cycles, much like the 1990s satellite bubble, as most ventures still depend heavily on institutional investors. Though regulatory and technical difficulties persist, the energy propelling today’s commercial spaceflight revival remains undeniable. The key will be effectively harnessing this commercial upsurge alongside an expedient, responsive oversight system. Efforts like NASA’s newly established Artemis program in 2017, which is providing direction and leadership for goals such as returning humans to the Moon, are a start. But these must be built upon to ensure continued American leadership (NASA Artemis, accessed November 16).

China’s State-Driven Approach: Centralized Control Constraints Dynamism

China’s space program, traditionally state-driven, has recently witnessed burgeoning contributions from the private sector. This transition, initially spurred by government policies like the 2014 Document 60 (国发〔2014〕60号), is reshaping China’s approach to space exploration (NDRC, October 26, 2015).

Since then, the commercial space sector has come to be defined by ambitious goals and select priorities set by policy documents like the State Council’s White Papers on Space Activities and the 2015-2025 National Medium- to Long-Term Civilian Space Infrastructure Development Plan (国家民用空间基础设施中长期发展规划) (Xinhua, December 27, 2016; NDRC, October 26, 2015). Other policies, like the 2019 Industry Catalog Encouraging Foreign Investment (鼓励外商投资产 业目录) and the 13th Five-Year Plan (“十三五”国家战略性新兴产业发展规划) encourage foreign investments and recognize space as a strategic emerging industry, respectively (NDRC, June 30, 2019; State Council, November 29, 2016). Broader policy frameworks like Military-Civil Fusion (军民融合) and Belt and Road (一带一路), while not focused on space specifically, are already expanding opportunities for China’s commercial space sector through programs like the Space Information Corridor (空间信息走廊) and the Beidou Satellite Navigation System (北斗卫星导航 系统) (UNOOSA, 2018; CNSA, February 14, 2019).

However, while private Chinese space startups exist on paper, their autonomy remains circumscribed, starved of contracts and funding sources outside the government’s orbit. Instead, private companies and state-owned enterprises (SOEs) operate synergistically in China’s space sector, not competitively. Private companies occupy niche roles, focusing on specialized technologies with limited budgets, while SOEs enjoy robust state backing. In 2019, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND; 国家国防科技工业局), alongside the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, codified 2002 launch licensing requirements for private space companies to obtain permits from the military, which retains control over access to launch sites. This reflects an aim to support commercial space while maintaining state oversight (MIIT, November 21, 2002; SASTIND & CMC, May 30, 2019). Moreover, SOEs, CAS spin-offs, private subsidiaries, and startups, all require oversight and approval from SASTIND. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA, 人民解放军) also retains ultimate authority over most space activities, including taikonaut selection and training, as well as launch facilities and ground systems (China Aerospace Studies Institute, March 1, 2021).

This amounts to a scenario of differentiated competition, where direct rivalry is precluded by separate market segments and financial scales. The government champions private space companies as a new model to attract investment and stimulate innovation for national benefit, but firmly within state-set bounds. This strategic differentiation aligns with Xi Jinping’s Military-Civil Fusion agenda—the 2017 State Council Opinion explicitly calls for “the coordinated construction of space infrastructure, meeting military and civilian needs (面向军民需 求,加快空间基础设施统筹建设)” (State Council, November 23, 2017).

Though often portrayed as private sector outsiders, China’s private space startups exhibit deep ties to the state. Many founders and engineers hail from elite academies and contractors like the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC, 中国航天科技集团公司), the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC, 中国航天科工集团有限公司), and China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT, 中国运载火箭技术研究院). For instance, iSpace’s CEO Peng Xiaobo (彭小波) formerly led R&D at CALT, while his vice president Yao Bowen (姚博文) is also an ex-CALT engineer, as are Yao’s father and wife (Sohu, August 25, 2020; Jiemian, August 8, 2019). Galactic Energy’s founder Liu Baiqi (刘百奇) earned his PhD at Beihang University (BUAA, 北京航空航 天大学) before lecturing there and joining CALT (Sohu, November 29, 2018). Even Liang Jianjun (梁建军), the founding chairman of Space Trek, worked for 20 years in the PLA’s ballistic missile program (Innovation China, August 2, 2022).

There are exceptions to the rule, such as LinkSpace (翎客航天), China’s first private rocket company established in 2014. However, they too reflect the intricate ties between private enterprises and state influence in China’s space sector. Founded by Hu Zhenyu (胡振宇), Yan Chengyi (嚴成義), and Wu Xiaofei (吴小飞), young graduates from less-renowned universities, LinkSpace exemplifies emerging diversity in the industry (Sina, April 25, 2019; China Daily, August 19, 2014). However, the 2019 transition of leadership to Chu Longfei (楚龙飞), a former CALT engineer with establishment credentials and a PhD from BUAA, underscores the porous boundaries between China’s private space firms and the state apparatus, and reflects the deliberate cultivation of insider status rather than disruptive autonomy (Toutiao, June 11, 2020).

Despite the iron grip of the state, China’s centralized space program has witnessed remarkable achievements over the past decade, including manned space flights, Lunar sample returns, Mars missions, and the development of reusable rocket technology (Ministry of National Defense, December 19, 2020; Xinhua, May 15, 2015; Xinhua, August 14). These milestones have fueled national pride and positioned China as a formidable competitor in the global space race. Concurrently, China’s commercial space sector is expanding through startups like LandSpace (蓝箭航天) and GalaxySpace (银河航天). However, these maintain close ties to state champions like CASC and the defense industry, constraining true dynamism.

Tsinghua University has also incubated private space firms through tech transfer from the United States, yet those firms direct resulting innovations toward national strategic objectives rather than commercial markets (Tsinghua University, accessed November 16). Though progress is evident, breakthrough innovation still lags that of America’s unleashed commercial space revolution.

 Forging the Trail vs. Paving the Path

In truth, neither the American nor Chinese model operates as a pure free market or state-run system. Both blend elements of public and private participation. However, the core challenge for each nation lies in finding the optimal equilibrium between government direction and commercial freedom within their respective frameworks (Bloomberg, February 27, 2017).

In the United States, NASA pioneers new frontiers while the Pentagon cultivates symbiotic partnerships with private contractors and startups. Although heavily government-reliant, this ecosystem enables visionary pursuits. In contrast, behind China’s rhetoric of military-civil fusion lies a tangled web of public and private cooperation activated only when mutual interests converge. Rather than operating autonomously as disruptive innovators, China’s private space firms mostly act as an extension of state interests.

Consequently, the fundamental difference between the systems is the degree of state control. Compared to America’s decentralized–but-directed ecosystem, China’s industry is more thoroughly suffused with central control, which maintains rigid oversight even as it espouses private sector dynamism. This contrast has profound strategic implications. America’s individualistic approach enabled an unmatched wellspring of innovation during the space race, producing pioneering technologies that fueled first-mover advantages. The PRC has excelled at orderly implementation but has historically struggled to invent radically new technologies, often confined to incremental improvements. It remains to be seen whether China can strike the delicate balance required to overcome barriers and achieve disruptive breakthroughs beyond specialized innovations.

The Stakes

The stakes of this contest are immense: Supremacy in space confers dominance terrestrially. Pursuit of the celestial high ground extends beyond mere national pride or scientific achievement; it has become a pivotal strategic maneuver in global power dynamics, offering decisive advantages as the new “commanding height (制高点)” (Xinhua, May 26, 2015). China’s vision, articulated by Xi Jinping, is to establish itself as the foremost “space power (航天强国)” by 2045, a goal that “serves the overall national strategy (国家整体发展战略的服务与服从)” of “national rejuvenation” by 2049 (Xinhua, January 28, 2022, April 12, 2019, October 18, 2017). Beyond ensuring intelligence gathering prowess, unmatched weapons deployment, and battlefield omniscience from orbit, preeminence in space would allow China to steer the cutting-edge technologies and industries set to drive future prosperity, as well as lead in international standards-setting.

The United States, in its pursuit of the original moonshot, catalyzed or created a market for a wave of inventions that have defined the modern era. Innovations such as integrated circuits, which powered the digital revolution, and satellite technology, which enabled global communications, are testament to this. Since 1976, more than 2,000 NASA spinoffs have seamlessly integrated into daily life, demonstrating the expansive impact of space exploration (NASA, July 15, 2019).

Just as Sputnik’s launch highlighted in stark terms the Soviet Union’s challenge to the postwar order, China’s burgeoning space capabilities portend a rivalry that may eclipse that of the Cold War. Space remains ripe for cooperation, and Beijing bills its space program as ambitiously collaborative. However, its underlying motivations remain inscrutable. Through ostensibly private companies, China gains footholds worldwide, integrating foreign actors into its orbit (UNOOSA, 2018). And with the International Space Station’s planned decommissioning, China may soon operate the world’s sole orbital laboratory, expanding global dependency on its celestial influence (NASA, September 20; Space News, September 1). As in the past, the United States can choose to lead in space by inspiration as much as enterprise—upholding principles of openness and cooperation benefiting all of humanity. For America to champion its values and vision, national space policy must balance pragmatism with idealism and competitiveness with inclusiveness. As China’s space capabilities advance, as exemplified by innovations like the Hyperbola-2 rocket, the United States has an opportunity to respond by reinvesting in its own technological leadership, upholding principles of openness, and fostering global collaboration, and, in doing so, hold open the door to the infinite possibilities that space offers humanity.