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Are the U.S. and China in a New Space Race?


Sunday, June 4th, 2023


This week’s core story is about: A possible U.S.-China space race.


President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation raising the debt ceiling into 2025, averting a default and ending months of political drama. Biden signed the “Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023” on Saturday, just two days before Monday’s default deadline.

The U.S. economy added 339,000 jobs in May, significantly more than the 190,000 jobs forecast by economists. The Labor Department also reported a bump in the unemployment rate, increasing to 3.7% last month, up from 3.4% the month prior.

A federal judge struck down Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation law banning drag shows in public places or anywhere minors could be present. U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, a Trump appointee, ruled the law “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” finding it violates free speech protections and encouraged “discriminatory enforcement.”

At least 288 people died and 900 were injured in a massive train wreck in eastern India on Friday. A preliminary report found a signal failure caused 10-12 coaches of one passenger train to derail and fall onto a nearby track. Another passenger train coming from the opposite direction then hit the debris, overturning three of its coaches. One of the passenger trains also struck a freight train parked nearby.

Are the U.S. and China in a New Space Race?

NASA's Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft atop the mobile launcher at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 18, 2022.


China has ramped up its activity in space in recent years, including sending its first civilian astronaut to space this week. The country’s rapid advancements and lofty goals have led many to say a new U.S.-China space race is afoot, while others point to differences that paint a more complex picture. So, what does the research say about a potential space race? And what does the competition really boil down to?

What’s happening:

China launched a new three-person crew to its orbiting space station on Tuesday, including the country’s first civilian astronaut. The new team lifted off from the Gobi Desert in northwestern China aboard the Shenzhou-16 spacecraft atop a Long March-2F rocket, heading for a six-month stay that will briefly overlap with the station’s existing crew.

The launch comes as China broadens its horizons in space, including plans to expand the now fully operational Tiangong space station (completed late last year) and eyes on landing humans on the Moon by 2030. China also plans to launch an orbital telescope with a field of view 350 times wider than that of the Hubble Space Telescope by the end of this year.

The U.S. also has big goals for space in the coming years, including the expensive Artemis Program, which aims to land humans on the Moon by 2025. Both the U.S. and China have their eyes on landing sites near the Moon’s south pole, where water ice and other resources that could be valuable for lunar settlement and exploration may be found.

The competition, which has so far been described as “friendly” by most sources, is clear: the two countries have similar aims and are pushing forward with ambitious plans in space. Still, it’s not clear that competition is actually a “race.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson disagrees, telling Politico in January, “It is a fact: we’re in a space race.” Nelson also believes it’s possible that if China gets to the Moon first, it could try to block American astronauts from exploring the more important areas of the lunar surface. “[I]t is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory.’”

So, what does the research say about a space race with China? And what are the forces underpinning the current environment? Let’s dive in.

What the research says:

A recent analysis by Svetla Ben-Itzhak, a professor of space and international relations at the U.S. Air Force’s Air University, paints a complex picture regarding the space ambitions of the U.S. and China.

According to Ben-Itzhak, when looking at the data quantifying the capabilities of different nations in space, the reality is that it’s not so much a race as it is a “complex hegemony,” with the U.S. dominating in nearly every area while China ramps up its budding program. In reality, it’s not even just China, in several key areas of space exploration, the U.S. is “far ahead” of the capabilities of all other spacefaring nations combined.

I’ll let Ben-Itzhak really drive the point home when it comes to the U.S. vs. China:

“Starting with spending: In 2021, the U.S. space budget was roughly $59.8 billion. China has been investing heavily in space and rocket technology over the last decade and has doubled its spending in the last five years. But with an estimated budget of $16.18 billion in 2021, it is still spending less than a third of the U.S. budget.

The U.S. also leads significantly in the number of active satellites. Currently, there are 5,465 total operational satellites in orbit around Earth. The U.S. operates 3,433, or 63% of those. In contrast, China has 541.

Similarly, the U.S. has more active spaceports than China. With seven operational launch sites at home and abroad and at least 13 additional spaceports in development, the U.S. has more options to launch payloads into various orbits. In contrast, China has only four operational spaceports with two more planned, all located within its own territory.”

In other areas, the differences are less stark. For instance, in 2021, China attempted 55 launches, four more than the U.S.’s 51. Still, the launches had different purposes, with 84% of the Chinese launches carrying government or military payloads, while 61% of the U.S. launches were for nonmilitary use.

Why it matters:

So, are we in a true space race? Probably not. It seems we’re in a race for the Moon, but Nelson’s comments to Politico can be seen equally as a true warning and an agency head politicking about their department’s goals and missions.

In Ben-Itzhak’s opinion, the term “race” is misplaced anyway, since it implies the countries are at roughly equal footing, which the data clearly shows is not the case.

The difference boils down to partnerships. For over half a century, the U.S. has cultivated international and commercial partnerships in important areas of space exploration, including signing 169 space data sharing agreements with dozens of countries and hundreds of intergovernmental and commercial partners.

Those partnerships include the 24 nations that have signed the Artemis Accords since 2020, outlining the program’s shared principles of cooperation and the details of returning people to the Moon and establishing a lunar base.

In 2019, China and Russia announced a joint agreement to land on the Moon by 2028, similarly inviting “all interested parties and international partners” to join their program.

To date, no countries have taken up the offer.


Harris County election workers close down a polling station in Houston on May 24, 2022.

Houston Chronicle

Texas Passed Legislation Targeting Election Policies in a Single Heavily Democratic County

Texas Republicans have passed legislation allowing unprecedented state intervention into elections in Harris County, a Democratic stronghold and the most populous county in Texas.

  • The bills eliminate the county’s top elections official and allow the state to intervene in the county’s elections in response to administrative complaints. The bills mimic legislation by Republican lawmakers in Florida and Georgia similarly seeking control over local elections.

  • The county is preparing to sue the state over the legislation, saying the legislature can’t pass laws targeting one specific city or county. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called it a “shameless power grab and dangerous precedent.”



People walking in Queens, New York in May 2023.


All 14 of New York City’s Wastewater Plants Reported High Levels of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus

All 14 wastewater treatment plants in New York City are currently reporting “high” levels of the virus that causes COVID, suggesting cases in the city are trending upwards, according to a dashboard updated Friday by the NYS Wastewater Surveillance Network. A “high” level means 50 or more COVID cases per 100,000 people.

  • The dashboard also offers data on two-week trends, tracing the rise in concentrations back to late April for most of the plants, though plants covering Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, and part of the Bronx experienced their sharpest increases in recent weeks.

  • City health officials confirmed the rise in detection levels, but said it’s too early to tell if it indicates another wave of infections.



YouTube logo on a screen.


YouTube Will Allow Election Misinformation

YouTube on Friday announced it will stop removing content that falsely claims “widespread fraud, errors, or glitches” impacted the 2020 presidential election and other past U.S. elections, saying removing the content can “have the unintended effect of curtailing political speech without meaningfully reducing the risk of violence or other real-world harm.”

  • The decision reverses the company’s election integrity policy it established in December 2020 in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s constant lies about his loss to President Joe Biden in that year’s presidential election.

  • The policy doesn’t change the company’s other misinformation rules, leaving policies in place that ban content containing misleading information about casting ballots, false claims that discourage voting, and encourages others to interfere in elections.


None of the World’s 15 Largest Economies Have Fertility Rates Above 2.1 Per 1,000 People

A new analysis by The Economist found none of the world’s 15 largest economies have fertility rates (the number of children a typical woman will have over her lifetime) above 2.1, suggesting the countries’ populations will become less stable over time.

  • The 2.1 figure is significant, since it represents what’s called the “replacement rate,” which ensures a population replaces itself from one generation to the next, keeping the population stable.

  • The analysis found the most extreme example of demographic decline in South Korea, which had a fertility rate of just 0.8 in 2022, meaning the next generation will be less than half of the size of its parents’.



Twitter Is Failing to Remove Hate Speech Posted by Twitter Blue Users

A new analysis by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found Twitter is failing to remove 99% of hate speech posted by Twitter Blue users, suggesting the platform is allowing the paid accounts to violate its rules and even boosting some of their “toxic tweets.”

  • The CCDH flagged hate speech tweeted by 100 Twitter Blue accounts, finding the company failed to act on 99% of the posts and 100% of the accounts four days after the team reported the tweets. Twitter removed one tweet, but allowed the offending account to remain active.

  • The tweets flagged by the CCDH included hate targeted at various groups, including one stating “Hitler was right,” accompanied by a montage of the dictator, and another that said LGBTQ+ rights activists need “IRON IN THEIR DIET. Preferably from a #AFiringSquad.”

  • Bonus Bite: The analysis was published shortly before Twitter head of trust and safety Ella Irwin resigned after CEO Elon Musk publicly rebuked her decision to remove a video posted by the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh that misgenders transgender people.



An Estimated 1.7 Billion T. Rexes Ever Roamed the Earth

A new study by researchers at the University of Mainz in Germany estimated 1.7 billion Tyrannosaurus rexes ever roamed the Earth, recalculating the findings of an April 2021 study that estimated 2.5 billion T. rexes ever stomped around our planet.

  • The lead author of the present study said they used an updated model calculating the absolute abundance of T. rexes that factored in information the authors of the 2021 study overlooked, particularly regarding the dinosaurs’ survival rates and egg-laying abilities.

  • The lead author of the 2021 study said the new work provided a more well-rounded approach and improved upon their team’s work, describing the new estimate as “more realistic.”


  • $22 billion - The amount of money made through “well-timed trades” by executives and early investors in companies that went public via special-purpose acquisition companies (“SPACs”), according to a new analysis by The Wall Street Journal of 460 organizations that did SPAC deals.

  • $30 million - How much Amazon will pay to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allegations that the company violated consumers’ privacy rights with its Ring and Alexa devices. In a pair of lawsuits, the FTC claimed Amazon employees viewed customers’ Ring camera recordings without their consent and kept Alexa voice recordings of young users despite parents’ requests that the recordings be deleted. 

  • 40% - The percentage of foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. from 2017 to 2019 that can be linked to a sick or infectious food worker, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • $2,651 - The mortgage payment needed to buy the median priced home for sale in the U.S. last month, a new record high, according to new data from Redfin. 


Long Video. Meet ocean acidification, climate change’s “evil twin.” (16 min)

Short Video. Listen to the sounds of Russia’s war recorded by former NPR reporter Tim Mak, who’s in Ukraine living through the attacks on Kyiv. (1 min)

Fun Video. What’s up with Saudi Arabia’s crazy megaprojects? (10 min)

Good Read. Will AI-generated food recipes always suck? (1,667 words; 8 min)

Neat List. Check out 15 amazing shots from the 2022 Close-Up Photographer of the Year Challenge.


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Written by Ryan Wittler