When it comes to the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China, the sky is by no means the limit. As the two countries jockey for economic, technological, geopolitical, and even ideological superiority on Earth, space has become a natural extension — and crucial frontier — in their great power competition.

And due to the inherently dual-use nature of space technologies, what’s at stake extends far beyond mere scientific prestige and global standing. In addition to national defense, so much of our life on Earth — from digital communications to navigation — depends on satellites in space. Following the demise of the Soviet Union’s space program, the US has enjoyed a period of unparalleled leadership in space.

But in recent years, US observers and politicians have warned that America’s dominance could soon be challenged by China’s fast-growing space capabilities. That concern has only deepened with a series of important and high profile Chinese achievements: In 2019, it became the first country to land on the far side of the moon; last year, it successfully put into orbit its final Beidou satellite, setting the stage to challenge the US Global Positioning System (GPS); and last month, it became the only country after the US to put a functioning rover on Mars. That particular breakthrough prompted NASA’s new administrator Bill Nelson to warn against American complacency in face of China’s space ambitions. 

At a House hearing last month, he held up an image taken by the Chinese rover on Mars, called China “a very aggressive competitor,” and lobbied Congress to fund NASA’s plans to bring humans back to the moon. Despite its advancements, China’s space technology still lags behind the US. But China’s space program is flush with political and monetary support from the ruling Communist Party, which views its success as a key measure of its intentional standing and domestic legitimacy. Last week, US-China competition in space entered a new phase when three Chinese astronauts arrived on the country’s still-under-construction space station for a three-month stay. The only other space station in orbit is the International Space Station (ISS), a US-led collaboration with Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada.