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"The Threat of China’s Space Program" in Humanizing Tech

And what it means when they pass the United States

I. Overview

Remember back in the Cold War days of the 1960s to 1980s when Russia and the United States of America were in a very real race to space? America increased its space budget because our politicians believed it was a matter of national security.

Cut to decades later and it seems that history does, indeed, repeat itself. Only this time with China, not Russia, as the main threat. In 2003, the same year America was distracted by a new war in the middle east, China became only the 3rd country in the world to independently send one of their human citizens into space.

Over the subsequent 13 years, China has been investing heavily in their own space program. In 2006, they also announced their plans for deep space exploration with their first focus on Mars. And most recently in mid-September, China sent their latest space lab, Tiangong-2, to orbit now that their first is out of their control and falling back to Earth. Both are in preparation for their first space station planned for the 2020s.

Of course, the project began many decades earlier during the same 1960s cold war era, when in mid 1967 Chairman Mao started China’s own space program. And in some white and blue to the flags in the picture below and you might confuse it easily with America’s space program. It’s that advanced.

II. Space Budgets & Launches

One of the most interesting stats when comparing the space super powers is how much each agency is spending compared to the number of successful launches that have occurred. Clearly 1 launch to Mars counts for a lot more than 30 launches of low earth orbit satellites but I think the following stats are telling on a few other levels:

  • America: $40 billion with 19 successful launches in 2013
  • China: $6 billion with 14 successful launches
  • Russia: $5 billion with an astounding 31

Interestingly, America is faring the worst based on those stats of about $2 billion cost per launch while Russia is winning significantly at only $160 million cost per launch.

As you can see, while the US and Russia have cut back on their space programs over the last few decades, China is slowly but surely building exponentially to a major space superpower. And they’re doing it with a high level of capital efficiency.

What costs the US $2B per launch, costs China only 1/5th that amount. At some point China will beat and pass both America and Russia.

How do I know this? Because of three simple forces that combine for a major global impact.

III. 3 Forces Allowing China to Grow Exponentially

The three major macroeconomic forces at work in China’s favor are their massive labor supply, an educational system built around manufacturing physical objects, and owning a large portion of American debt.

China has 1.35 billion people living inside its borders. America, in contrast, has only 319 million. That’s 4x as many people to help build things. And Russia has almost half as many as America with only about 144 million people.

This difference in a country’s labor force can have incredible implications when played over decades and centuries. If I have only 1 person building a house compared to you who has 4, it doesn’t matter how good my house is and what I’m able to charge for it, the fact that you’re making at least 4x as many over the same time period adds up to a much larger revenue potential for the country. That’s basically what GDP is.

And brings me to my next point. When you have that many people, education becomes incredibly important. In America, we had trained generations to follow orders and work on assembly lines. That’s why we make school children today memorize facts and take tests instead of building things with their hands, whether objects or businesses.

China, on the other hand, begins educating their children with a much different goal in mind. Basically to build things with their hand. America already outsources much of its manufacturing to China, from pencils to iPhones. They are about the only country in the world with the sheer size of labor force necessary to tackle the volume of products and the technical education necessary to get the work done.

Finally, China doesn’t just make a lot of money for building all the things that other countries need, they invest it in a place that creates even more of an advantage on a global scale. Namely, in foreign countries.

China owns $1.24 trillion of the US’s debt. Imagine owing a credit card bill or house that costs that much. How are we ever going to pay it off? Said differently, China owns about 10% of America’s total public debt.

They own 10% of our country. Let that sink in for a moment and then combine it with the other two forces:

China’s Power = labor force * manufacturing education * debt ownership

Now apply that not just to the Earth, but to potential future civilizations in space and on new back-up planets like Mars. What happens when a single country stops becoming artificial borders on Earth, but becomes its own planet?

What happens when China “owns” Mars?

IV. The New Space Race

We now have 6 competing super powers heading to interplanetary space and potentially Mars in the near future. NASA, Boeing, Russia, China, SpaceX, and Blue Origin.

4 of those are American organizations (NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing). Two are private institutions funded primarily by entrepreneurs. Three are public countries. And one is a private contractor for a governmental entity.

So, you could argue that America has an 80% chance of getting to Mars first and setting up benevolent colonies. Of course, from China or Russia’s perspective they could also view America as a potential threat. I would like to think we help a lot of other foreign countries when and where we can, but we’re also probably viewed as sticking our respective noses in places they don’t belong.

So let’s just get back to Mars.

In August 2016 China unveiled its first Mars rover, set for its 2020 launch to the red planet. Have a look at the below. Looks a lot like the Curiosity Rover, no?

And yet, in 2016 most people in Silicon Valley are more focused on bringing China’s innovations in mobile messaging apps back to the US. You saw it happen with Facebook Messenger. But they’re not so focused on keeping tabs on what’s happening with their space program.

As you’ve seen from the above, China is attempting to get to Mars in the 2020s but without a public plan and having inside knowledge there’s no way to know how advanced they really are and how much they’re holding behind a veil of secrecy to sneak up on everyone.

The only real publicly viable potential plan that our species has seen is from SpaceX. And boy are there lots of incredibly complex problems to solve and lots of capital required to get there.

Maybe China is the only country in the world with the bank vault full enough to pay for a trip, even if other countries have the technical know-how. It keeps coming back to that China Power equation from above.

So what is the world population to do about some pie in the sky space race when we have real problems affecting normal people on this planet today? Hunger. Disease. Terror.

It depends on which priorities you deem to invest in. Space is a long-term priority on the roadmap. If we only have 2 days to detect an asteroid that could wipe out our species, should we not do something to help us survive? But what percentage of our roadmap do we apply to long-term survival versus today’s survival?

I think it comes down to how you spend every single day. If every moment is focused on the problems right in front of your face, you’ll never solve long-term issues and eventually it will be too late. If you focus 100% on stuff that might happen 100 years in the future, then you won’t be able to feed or protect yourself tomorrow.

It’s all about balance. Do a little bit of each every day. Roll that up across an entire population. But make sure you’ve got the mechanics in place (e.g., educational system) to support these long-term country goals.

Simply saying STEM is important is one thing. Actually setting up apprenticeship programs to show kids how to build something is likely far more valuable than memorizing facts about atoms and the properties of steel.

And if you use that as the only measure of success, China is beating America. It’s just most of us can’t feel it yet. Because that happens after it’s already too late.

— Sean

Read More

My Tour of SpaceX Yesterday


The Threat of China’s Space Program was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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from Stories by Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/2dSiRIJ