Meet Washington’s shadow diplomat: NASA 

But both countries are lining up their allies in space. The Artemis Accords, an effort led by NASA and seven other nations to outline rules for future space exploration, have already succeeded in cementing Washington’s ties with some of its strongest partners and others that are more tenuous.

Thirty-two countries have signed onto the accords. They include India, which has long avoided space partnerships with other countries, and recently became the fourth country to land on the moon; Argentina, which maintains friendly relations with China; and Saudi Arabia, which signed the accords amid its dispute with the U.S. last summer over the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In October, Beijing secured two more partnerships for its own space program, which aims to build a research station on the moon in the 2030s. Countries that have signed on include Belarus, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela and Azerbaijan — none of which are particularly aligned with the U.S.

“We’re only just now recognizing that what is happening in China is really, really contrary to the interests of pretty much everyone else,” said Tory Bruno, CEO of aerospace giant United Launch Alliance, which is made up of defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing. “And therefore we’ve got to do something about it.”

Is it a space race?

While there’s certainly a competition, not everyone believes that “space race” — Nelson’s preferred phrase — is the best framing of the issue. Several experts POLITICO spoke with are openly opposed to it.

“I find it frustrating because it makes a complicated relationship even more complicated,” said Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank focused on the peaceful use of outer space, adding that it “unnecessarily makes it an antagonistic approach toward how we evolve our use of space.”

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