Guest Columnists

Space, quantum computing, and U.S. leadership

Rosalie Vos-Tulp (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)
Rosalie Vos-Tulp (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

I vividly remember the news breaking that the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik 1 the first artificial Earth satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. Americans were shocked and disbelieving that the Communist country, which was regarded as backward, poor, and inept, had achieved this startling accomplishment.

Remember that at that moment the world was in the heat of the Cold War. Control of space meant a huge advantage in the space and missile race, in other words for military supremacy.

The Soviet Union stunned the world again on Nov. 3, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 2 aboard of which was a small stray dog Laika, rescued from the streets of Moscow. Soviet scientists believed that a stray dog could better survive the harsh conditions of hunger and cold temperatures in space, which would be similar to life on the streets.

In a scramble to catch up to the Soviets on July 29, 1958 President Eisenhower signed an act that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It’s objective was to accelerate America’s bid for leadership in space.

I was in college when on 12 April 1961 a Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. This was a chilling moment. It served as an incentive for the United States to accelerate and strengthen its space program which resulted in a chain of historic events including astronaut Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space on May 5, 1961 and on July 16, 1969 the first humans to land on the Moon and return to earth were Americans.

No effort or funding was spared by subsequent administrations especially John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to expand and maintain Americans leadership on space. NASA basically asked the politicians, “Who do you want to call the shots for the future of space the Soviets or the United States?” America’s leadership loudly answered “The USA!”

In 2017 there is another race, which rivals the space race in significance. It’s the race for supremacy in Cyber Space.


We are acutely aware of the constant, growing, dangerous cyber attacks on the United States by its current rivals. It’s not only the Russian hacking and social media incursions before and during the 2016 elections. There have also been a chain of data breaches of companies, government sites, the National Security Agency, and most dangerous, the theft of over 150 million confidential records from EQUIFAX, the credit rating company.

Many of the most experienced analysts have concurred that Cyber Space is the new frontier of competition for commercial development, basic science, and national security tools. This closely parallels the space race, which produced a massive revolution in science, in new commercial products, the creation of millions of jobs, and military security.

It’s a little known fact that the Cyber race is largely between China, Russia, and the United States. We’ve heard that Russia has deployed a massive array of very sophisticated hackers whose competence is underscored by the strong science and technology and mathematics, which is stressed in Russian schools and universities.

As China became an economic powerhouse the government invested heavily in education and many Chinese study at the best universities in the world and return to nourish China’s industry as well as government al agencies.

Of particular concern is the growing skepticism about science and the ridiculing of “academia” that has become a new American political tool. We know about the climate change debate especially the notion that climate science is a hoax.

However, the most dangerous development is the massive investment by the Chinese in Quantum computing. This is the search for supercomputers that use principles similar to of Quantum mechanics, which can figure out algorithms at 100,000,000 (that’s one hundred million) times the speed of a traditional chip like the one on your computer. There is work on Quantum computing at NASA and several private corporations. The US government spends only $200 million a year on quantum computing research. But, China is building a $10 billion National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences. China already leads in unhackable quantum-enabled satellites and has the world’s fastest supercomputers.

The question now is, “Who do we want to call the shots in the future of Cyber Space, the Chinese or the Americans?” I hope the answer is the same as it was in 1958 when we launched our space programs.

l Steffen Schmidt is the Lucken Endowed Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University. He is a member of the ISU Information Assurance Program and the US STRATCOM Academic Alliance.

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