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China and the United States are Now Rivals: Space Exploration and R&D Will Likely Determine Who Wins

China’s Treasure Ships

Between 1405 and 1433, China’s Ming dynasty under Admiral Zheng He commanded the largest navy in the history of the world. The fleet had more than 3,500 ships, about 300 of which were giant wooden “treasure” ships thought to be as long as 400 feet. This fleet carried tens of thousands of people and completed multiple voyages to places as far away as East Africa. The technology was unprecedented at the time and dwarfed modern Navy fleets (US Navy has 300-400 total ships today).

Following the success of this armada, China turned inward. There are multiple theories for why this occurred. Many say that the Ming dynasty felt threatened by increasingly wealthy merchants. Whatever the reason, the ruling Ming dynasty grounded their treasure ships and banned trans-ocean voyages.

Recreated Chinese Treasure Ship, Nanjing, China.

European Exploration and Power

Around this time, European countries like Portugal and Spain were starting to get serious about exploration, colonization, and later imperialism. Using 50 to 100-foot wooden ships, western European nations would eventually carve up all of Africa, the Americas, and much of Asia. The power, influence, and wealth obtained as part of this expansion was unprecedented. It gave Europe the jump on the industrial revolution and forever changed the history of our planet.

Imagine the world today if China had not turned inward in the 1440s. Quite frankly it is unimaginable. Turning inward likely cost China world domination. It took 100s of years for China to recover. In 2013 China’s Yutu rover landed on the moon, as their international reach and influence continues to grow. In the last 10 years, China has finally caught up with the west. By every metric, it appears that their society may surpass ours on a technological and financial level in the next decade.

China's Yutu rover landed on the moon in 2013.

R&D Spending, United States versus China

For years the United States spent more money on research and development than any other nation. While US R&D spending has increased 4-5% annually over the last 20 years, China’s R&D spending has risen by a giant 17% a year. In 2019, for the first time, China surpassed the US in R&D spending.

Predicting future world superpowers is not easy to do. But metrics like research, development, and exploration spending are a good place to start. R&D spending leads to the innovations that drive society and produce wealth. This along with exploration leads to new ideas, technologies, and resources. Think about the wealth created for the United States by the cold war with Russia and resultant space race. Fundamental societal innovations like GPS, wireless headphones, memory foam, freeze dried food, LED lighting, as well as satellites were all a product of this time.

The Wealth of Outer Space and Research

When the Ming Dynasty turned inward and stopped exploring, they lost on a world stage. Today, we have replaced wooden ships with rockets and space is the new frontier. The wealth beyond our planet is immense. Valuable substances to be mined, almost infinite energy, and new discoveries are all waiting beyond our atmosphere. On top of this, creating sustainable and fully autonomous space colonies will eventually inform our own manufacturing and building practices here on earth from a sustainability and waste management perspective. The governments and private entities that go after space and its countless riches are sure to win big. Of course, the barriers to entry into the space industry are high. But prices continue to fall and space is becoming more accessible. This is such an exciting time for humanity.

Diagram of the Saturn 5 rocket used to take astronauts to the moon on the Apollo missions. Saturn 5 is the most powerful machine ever built by humans and we made it in the 1960s. It was built so big because its designer hoped it may someday be used to bring people to Mars.

Pressure and Competition Could Save the United States

Humans seem to perform best when we feel pressured or threatened. How did we go from the Wright Flyers first flight in 1903 to putting a man on the moon 1969? The answer is with a gun (or Nuke) to our heads. Nazi Germany’s war machine took the early lead in aviation with game changers like pilot ejection seats and ballistic missiles. This pushed the US aviation system to its limits during World War 2 and brought aviation to a whole new level. Following WWII, 2 superpowers, Russia and the United States arose. Both countries threatened each other with nuclear destruction and used their space programs as ways to show technological dominance. The progress made in aerospace and technology during this 66-year period was insane. Since 1969, the pace of progress in these fields have slowed tremendously.

Now, for the first time since the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the United States has a true rival. China has become real competition with every future metric of success largely in its favor. This scares a lot of people, and for good reasons. If a cold war becomes hot it could easily kill our planet and species. Moreover, the US stands to loose a lot of money and influence. But, if the war stays cold, this could be a good thing, and here is why.

The United States has gotten complacent. Quite frankly, we are lazy. Most of us are used to being given things. We are pushed through the education system and often refuse to work hard. Many of us are dependent on government support. Remember the saying, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Nobody says that anymore.

So paradoxically, I am excited for the possibility of a rivalry with China. It might be just the kick in the pants the United States needs. However, I fear for the environment as well as the possibility of armed conflict.

We are All in this Together

Every astronaut, cosmonaut, and space voyager seem to come to the same conclusion after viewing earth from space. Our species and the earth we live in are fragile and we are all connected. We have one world. We are one species. No matter what happens to China, the United States, Russia, or any other country, at the end of the day, we are all on the same team. When the earth is faced with its first modern global catastrophe (large asteroid impact, mega volcano eruption, etc) this will likely become immediately apparent.

Thanks for reading,

Bill Brandenburg, MD


- Wikipedia – Chinese treasure ships (

- Wikipedia, Yutu Voyager (

- NASA, 20 Inventions from Space (

- Viglione G. China is closing gap with United States on research spending. Nature. 2020

- Phillips M. Testing the limits: Aviation medicine and the origin of manned space flight. Texas A&M University Press. 2006.

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