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Are we really in a new space race with China and Russia?

Vice-President Mike Pence spoke at a meeting of the National Space Council, an advisory body of the president, on March 26, 2019, in Huntsville, Alabama.

How do you make a ambitious goal and a quick timeline, it seems worthwhile to tackle, among a busy slate of threatened existential crises? An appeal to America’s competitive spirit, apparently.

That is the current government’s clear policy, in each case, as revealed by Vice-President Mike Pence in a speech at a meeting of the National Space Council, held on 26 March. There, he revealed the administration of the new plans for the landing of man on the moon, again — now pushed from 2028 to 2024, five years from now.

And he referred to the Russian and Chinese activities in the area and spoke the magical, rhyming words. “Make no mistake, we are in a space race today, just as we in the 1960’s, and the stakes are even higher,” Pence said. He went on to detail two types of competitions that the administration sets are located in the area of human lunar spaceflight — international, with Pence citing China and Russia by name, and internally, with our own complacency.

Related: US Is in a New Space Race with China and Russia, VP Pence Says

On the international stage, Pence highlighted two potential opponents. “Last December [ in fact, Jan. 2, 2019 ], China was the first country to land on the far side of the moon, and revealed their ambition to grab the moon strategic high ground and the world’s pre-eminent spacefaring nation,” Pence said. “And for more than seven years, without a viable human space launch of our own, Russia is charging the United States more than $80 million a seat every time that a U.s. astronaut trips to the International Space Station.”

But neither country seems particularly interested in the participation of America in this race, space experts told Space.com. To be honest, the first space race was not very consensually built. “We entered in a contest to get to the moon in the ’60s, without knowing what the Soviet Union was doing, and so we have the fact that they could build a rocket on the moon to the same timetable as we did,” John Logsdon, a space historian at The George Washington University, told Space.com. “It turned out that they started two and a half years behind us, and never had much of a chance.”

No one race

This time around, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will attract a serious competition when it comes to putting man on the moon, for a very simple reason — Pence is highlighted competitors don’t seem to have no interest in the accelerate in the direction of that goal.

“The Russians do not have a certain public interest in going to the moon with manned space flight,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a political scientist at Cameron University in Oklahoma, said Space.com. “[The Chinese] have taken a deliberately slow, methodical approach for the aerospace industry, and for them, I think the motives are more in the military and national prestige rich.”

China is certainly interested in the moon, but the current timeline puts human landings somewhere in the period after 2030, even slower than NASA’s timeline for this week is the aggressive rescheduling. Now, on her spaceflight ambitions are directed elsewhere: a space station called Tiangong 3, the first module of which is due to start in the next year or so.

“They are not exactly the race to the moon,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning of the Secure World Foundation, told Space.com. “I’m sure China is thinking about the moon and get back, but I have not seen any concrete plans with timelines and budgets to do this.”

Where China is feeling the competitive drive, instead, in the military world, Whitman Cobb said, and here is where the comparison with the Cold War space race makes sense. “Space is just a ballistic missile pointed in a different direction,” she said. “There would probably not be a space race if it was not that we could use as a peaceful demonstration of military capabilities.”

But still, China is not in a position to really compete, Weeden said. “Virtually everything that they are doing things that the U.S. has already done in the past,” he said. “China is still catching up.”

And even if Russia wants to reprise his role in the Apollo-era space race, they are in a weak position. “I think that’s a nonstarter in my eyes,” Logsdon said of the country to compete with the US. “The Russian space program is just in a chaotic state, that they are in no shape to take on a big challenge.”

Races closer to home

After referring to China and Russia, Pence pointed to the way in which he is of the opinion that a lack of urgency for a new moon landing among Americans in general and NASA in particular, is the real factor hobbling the next “big jump.”

And for Logsdon, that was the real takeaway from Pence’s speech. “Well, they are really framing it as a race? I have not heard that a whole bunch of what Pence had to say,” he said. “I think it is, this is too long to be on our own terms, not that we have to go faster, because we’re racing someone. … I think you have to pay a kind of lip service to the fact that Russia and China are also interested in the large space activities, but to say it is really a challenge for us to do better.”

For some, it is the framing of the increasingly aggressive lunar landing timeline on the international stage can be a tactic to encourage the government to fork over more money for the effort, according to Weeden. “There are certainly people who want that people think that there is a race,” he said. “It is motivating, there is a kind of thinking that the only reason that we were able to go to the moon in the first place, this was the competition with the Soviets.”

Of course, there is a different kind of race on the horizon — the regular schedule of the presidential elections. And here, the new target date of 2024 for this space race is striking. “It is the last year of the Trump administration, on the assumption that he wins a second term,” Whitman Cobb said. “That is one way to burnish your legacy.”

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Original article on Space.com.

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