Are space races best for progress?

10 January 2023



Peter says, "we've heard that the US is locked in a space race with China and the country needs to watch out that its rival doesn't dominate Lunar resources, or so says NASA's top official. So why is space science so often a point of competition, he says, rather than collaboration?"


Matt - I think this is a question that I would also love to know the answer to. I think the answer is that the people that are deciding that it's a competition are the politicians. It's not the people actually doing the science. NASA is famously beholden to this thing in US legislation called the Wolf Amendment, which means that they can't put any money into any sort of collaboration with China. I think the politicians' justification for this is that travel and space launches, in terms of tech, isn't a million miles away from missile launches. And so if you give people insight into your space capabilities, you might be giving them a bit of insight into your military capabilities. I think most scientists just want to get on with it, to be honest. I think Martin Rees, the astronomer royal here in Cambridge, said that America going along with this wolf amendment and refusing to cooperate with China was a huge own goal, and I think most scientists would agree. I think scientists tend to want to collaborate, right? Even at the height of the Cold War, you had mathematicians sneaking across the border to exchange their number theory notes and stuff like that, right? So I think scientists want to collaborate, even if sometimes politicians don't let us.

Chris - But also, it's a sort of friendly competition against frenemies up to a point, isn't it? It's quite good sometimes to have competition and regard yourself as in a race because it tends to make people dig deeper and go that extra mile. Things tend to get done faster if people think they're racing for something?

Matt - That's exactly true. So the the first space race between the USSR and America wouldn't have happened if they weren't in competition? There's a famous quote, I forgot who said it, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. I mean maybe the space race is a continuation of war by other means?


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