US Could Lose Space Race to China After NASA Retires International Space Station, Experts Warn

‘The U.S. faces imminent political threats in space.’
US Could Lose Space Race to China After NASA Retires International Space Station, Experts Warn
The NASA logo is displayed at the Earth Information Center exhibit at NASA headquarters in Washington on June 21, 2023. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang

The United States is now facing the risk of surrendering its leadership in space to China as the U.S.-led International Space Station (ISS) is set to be decommissioned at the end of 2030, according to a lawmaker and space industry experts.

To replace the aging ISS, which is located in low Earth orbit (LEO) about 250 miles from Earth, NASA has awarded contracts to several companies to develop commercial space stations. While there are still several years before the ISS is expected to retire, there are concerns that the commercial stations will not be ready as replacements, leaving open the possibility that China’s communist regime and its Tiangong space station will dominate LEO activities.

NASA stated in a report in 2022 that the transition from the ISS to commercial space stations would save the agency up to $1.8 billion per year. In the post-ISS era, NASA will be one of many customers of commercial space stations run by private firms.
“When ISS was constructed, it was the only facility of its kind. Today, the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] operates a space station that has hosted Taikonauts in LEO since 2021,” Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, said during a Feb. 14 congressional hearing.

“The CCP has also solicited international partnerships to conduct research activities on this [Tiangong] station. If another station is not operable by the time ISS retires, the Chinese station may be the only human-occupied station available to scientists for LEO research.”

NASA celebrated the 25th anniversary of the ISS being in orbit in December 2023, announcing at the time that the station had been visited by 273 people from 21 countries and had conducted more than 3,700 research and educational investigations.
In January 2020, NASA awarded the first contract to develop at least one commercial station, or “destination” as the agency calls it, to Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. In December 2021, the space agency contracted three additional companies—Blue Origin Enterprises, Nanoracks LLC, and Northrop Grumman Corp.—for the development of commercial destinations in space. Nanoracks is owned by Denver-based Voyager Space Holdings.
Northrop Grumman has since decided to team up with Voyager Space. Now, the Voyager Space team also includes European aerospace giant Airbus and U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp. for the development of a commercial space station called Starlab.
The Blue Origin-led team is developing what it calls an “Orbital Reef” commercial space station. Axiom Space has announced a 2026 launch date for the first module of its space station.
The ISS was originally slated to be decommissioned after 15 years of service. In 2023, four of the five principal partners of the ISS—space agencies of the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada—agreed to extend the operations of the ISS through 2030. The remaining principal partner, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, agreed to continue participation in the ISS until at least 2028.

ISS Transition

Two witnesses at the congressional hearing—Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief government and external relations officer of Axiom Space, and Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager Space—also warned about how the Chinese regime could fill the potential gap in LEO after the ISS is retired.

“The U.S. faces imminent political threats in space. China and its brand new space station Tiangong is already operational, and many of our allies are planned to be users,” Mr. Taylor said.

“If commercial platforms are not available ahead of decommissioning [ISS], our current partner nations will have no choice but to gravitate toward China. We are in a modern space race—like the days of Apollo—and the U.S. is the leader in space and human exploration, but that leadership in the future is not assured. It is critical [that] we carry America’s legacy forward.”

In his written testimony, he noted that the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), working with the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), “is already flying international science payloads” to Tiangong space station. In other words, U.S. allies will be “in a challenging position” if the United States cannot timely provide commercial platforms in the post-ISS era, he said.
Under the UNOOSA–CMSA initiative, nine experiment projects from 17 countries and 23 institutes were selected in 2019 to be conducted at the Tiangong space station. According to Japanese media outlet Nikkei Asia, China transported the equipment from one of the projects—a cooperation between China’s Tsinghua University and Japan’s University of Tokyo—to the Chinese space station in May 2023.

“The only beneficiary of an unsuccessful transition to commercial platforms—able to maintain continuous human presence, conduct science and other research, and catalyze commercial development—will be China,” Ms. Dittmar said.

“We cannot accept that future. If we have a gap of American presence in low Earth orbit, the only winner will be China, and immediate course correction by Congress is needed.”

Her recommendations for Congress included authorizing the flight of the ISS until 2030 with the possibility of extension until one commercial station is operational and funding NASA’s commercial LEO destinations program at $295 million.

Ms. Dittmar also urged NASA to downscale to two companies for the development of commercial space stations to free up resources.

Ken Bowersox, NASA associate administrator for space operations, told lawmakers at the hearing that the agency is committed to working with Congress to achieve the ISS transition.

“Our approach to avoiding any gap in low Earth orbit is to do everything we can to make the commercial LEO destinations before 2030,” Mr. Bowersox said. “We’re committed to deorbit ISS starting in 2030 and we’re going to work with you to try to get the resources to do that.”

Science and Intellectual Property

The Chinese regime is known for targeting companies and institutions and stealing their intellectual property (IP). The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in a report published in 2018, found that “Chinese theft of American IP currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion annually.”

The risk of China stealing from its partners working at the Chinese space station was also discussed during the hearing.

“The intellectual property risk is real,” Mr. Taylor said. “This is one of the arguments we’re making to nations who might see China as a good deal because they’re deeply discounting their access. And, of course, that comes at a price, and the price is they’re not going to control their IP.

“So, with respect to Starlab, we take that extremely seriously; there'll be no Chinese activity on our space station. I think there is a real risk that conducting any kind of commerce or research on Tiangong will necessarily have IP consequences.”

Robert Ferl, a distinguished professor at the University of Florida and the co-chair of the Decadal Survey on Biological and Physical Sciences Research in Space, told lawmakers at the hearing that science research done on the ISS has important implications.

“Science in the International Space Station in low Earth orbit is not substituted by the trip to the moon. It enables the trip to the moon, and the more we do science in low Earth orbit, the more we enable our capabilities to move to the moon and Mars,” Mr. Ferl said.

In his written testimony, he highlighted the importance of biological and physical sciences (BPS) research in space, which he defined as “the science that seeks an understanding of the unique forces that spaceflight imposes on biological and physical systems.”

“BPS enables the engineering needed to create our space vehicles and to live inside them. BPS feeds the fundamental science that allows the Human Research Program at NASA to understand the clinical effects on humans in space,” Mr. Ferl wrote.

He said NASA needed to massively increase its funding for BPS research.

“If the United States wants to maintain its leadership role for the next generation of space science and exploration, funding for BPS research will have to increase tenfold before the end of the decade,” Mr. Ferl wrote.

“Currently, China has a space station in orbit and is conducting the same kinds of research that Americans have led for decades. Indeed, we are now seeing them perform similar experiments to those we conduct on the ISS. Nobody doubts their resolve to catch up with us and surpass us.”

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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