The Private-Sector Space Challenge to China

Dean Cheng /

The SpaceX Dragon capsule has returned to Earth after delivering nearly a half-ton of supplies in the first purely commercial replenishment mission to the International Space Station (ISS). With its successful completion, SpaceX is now on its way to providing a private-sector alternative for keeping the ISS supplied, with 12 flights scheduled through 2016 under the terms of a $1.6 billion contract with NASA.

The successful mission is a rare example of the Obama Administration’s preferring a commercial rather than governmental role. Just as importantly, the success of SpaceX makes it unlikely that the ISS consortium would ever have to rely on Chinese vehicles to provide support to the station—a possibility that was raised after a series of Russian space failures. But it also poses other challenges toBeijing(which has shown little interest in participating in the ISS in recent years in any case).

The success of SpaceX highlights the potential that the private sector offers in playing a larger role in key arenas and domains such as space and cyber, more commonly associated with governments. This is something that other nations, including the People’s Republic ofChina, are uncomfortable with. Preferring to dealing with countries rather than companies, nongovernmental organizations, and private citizens,Beijinghas sought to marginalize the role of non-state actors. In the cyber realm, it would like to see Internet management and governance moved from the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN) to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where states dominate. We are likely to see a similar preference expressed in the future toward space activities.