“It would be bragging rights for China,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in an interview. “It would be a feather in their cap.” And of course we intend for that not to happen. »
The tension comes at a time when several countries fly spaceships, without astronauts, to the Moon and build coalitions to get there. In August, India became the first country to successfully land an uncrewed spacecraft near the south pole of the moon, where there is water in the form of ice. This followed a Russia’s failed attempt days before. Israel and Japan also recently attempted, unsuccessfully, to land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface.
If China were to be the first to land its astronauts, sometimes called taikonauts, it could have the advantage of “setting the rules of the road for how this new era of exploration will work,” Todd Harrison said. non-resident senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We want to be there to set a precedent for mining materials on the Moon and determine how it’s done to claim the materials and property rights,” he said. “We want to do it in a way that is consistent with our values and our economic system. And if China gets there first, it will set a precedent based on its values and its economic system.”
The Chinese space program got off to a late start; it wasn’t until 2003 that they launched a human into space, three decades after the United States last sent a human to the Moon. But since then, it has built a slow, steady cadence of missions that have propelled China to the forefront of space powers, with a permanently manned space station in low Earth orbit and a robotic landing on Mars in 2021.
The Moon has attracted particular interest. After sending a spacecraft into orbit around the Moon in 2007 and again in 2010, China landed the Chang’e-3 spacecraft in 2013, becoming the first country to soft-land on the lunar surface after the United States and the Soviet Union. In early 2019, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on Earth. the dark side of the moon. And in 2020, I brought back samples from the lunar surface, in another impressive display of its growing prowess and ambition.
China has successfully landed spacecraft on the lunar surface three times this century, while the United States has not landed there since Apollo 17, the last of the Apollo missions, in 1972.
“The Chinese know that simply achieving this themselves will not make them the ‘winner’ in the ongoing and renewed space competition,” said Dean Cheng, senior adviser to the China program at the American Institute for peace. “However, what China appears to be trying to do is make clear that it will be a major player, if not the main player, in setting the norms and standards for future space activities in the volume of space cislunar.”
To counter this, the United States built an international coalition linked to its lunar campaign by developing the Artemis agreementsa legal framework that establishes rules for the peaceful use of space and would govern behavior on the surface of the Moon.
So far, 31 countries have signed these agreements, which constitutes the most ambitious international space policy since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Under the Artemis Accords, countries exploring the Moon would be required, by example, to share scientific research and to be open and transparent about where they operate and what they do. In recent years, NASA — after achieving feats such as the James Webb Space Telescope and reestablishing human spaceflight from American soil — has become a tool of diplomatic power that the White House is eager to exploit.
“Now when we go overseas, people usually want to see us,” Nelson said. In his conversations with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, it was clear to Nelson that Sullivan “understands that space could be one of his foreign policy tools.” And this would help, he said, “to constitute a bulwark against China’s expansionism and aggressiveness”.
Shortly before India’s successful moon landing, India signed the agreements. China, however, is not a signatory and NASA is effectively barred from partnering with China on space missions due to concerns about technology theft by China.
“Today is not a race to the moon,” said Harrison of CSIS. “It’s a race about the race. It’s about how to get there, and the partnerships you build to get there, and the precedents that are set. This is different from what happened in the 1960s when it came to planting a flag. Today, it’s more complicated and the stakes are higher.”
Both China and the United States aim to build colonies at the Moon’s south pole, where water, in the form of ice, is found in the permanently shadowed craters. Even if no country can claim sovereignty over the Moon, China could say, “We’re not claiming territory, but here’s a no-go zone and no one can land within miles,” Harrison said. “It would be an extension of what they did in the South China Sea, building islands with sand and then claiming an exclusion zone.”
In 2019, Vice President Mike Pence pushed NASA to meet its ambitious 2024 moon landing schedule “by any means necessary” in order to beat China, which he said was trying to “seize the strategic heights lunar missions and become the world’s first space nation. » This deadline will not be respected. But NASA has made some progress.
Late last year, NASA successfully completed the Mission Artemis I, the first in its renewed lunar effort, sending the Orion crew capsule, with no one on board, on a journey around the moon. By the end of next year, or early 2025, it intends to launch the Artemis II mission, sending Orion to the Moon again, this time with a crew of four: three NASA astronauts – Christina Koch, Victor Glover and Reid Wiseman – as well as Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen.
But the timeline for a human landing, known as Artemis III, is uncertain. NASA is counting on SpaceX to use its Rocket and spaceship to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface. But the vehicle was stolen only once, in April, and had to be destroyed when it began to spin out of control minutes after it was stolen. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration completed its investigation, but it is awaiting a separate investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into the environmental impacts of the launches. before issuing SpaceX a launch license.
SpaceX pushed regulatory agencies to go faster as it must launch Starship multiple times, including an uncrewed test mission to the Moon, in order to prove to NASA that the vehicle is safe and reliable enough for human spaceflight. SpaceX also intends to refuel Starship in low Earth orbit before heading to the Moon, a difficult task that has never been accomplished before and would require a fleet of tanker spaceships.
Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, William Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president for construction and flight reliability and a former senior NASA official, said that if delays persist, “eventually we will lose our lead and we will We’ll see China land on the Moon before we do.”
Recently, NASA Inspector General cited returning to the Moon as the space agency’s biggest challenge. “NASA officials are concerned that technical difficulties associated with SpaceX’s Starship … will delay the mission currently planned for December 2025 to 2026,” the IG said in a report. “The extent of the delays will depend on when SpaceX can resume flight testing.”
However, NASA has planned two robotic missions to the Moon in the coming months. In the first case, Astrobotic, a Pittsburgh-based company, would send its Peregrine lander to the moon, on a mission scheduled to launch in the early hours of Christmas Eve. It would carry a suite of scientific instruments and other payloads from six countries. If successful, it would be the first commercial spacecraft to land on the lunar surface and the first for the United States since the Apollo program.
It would be followed by Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company that intends to fly its uncrewed lander in January.
But China is not standing still. Next year, it plans to launch its Chang’e-6 mission, which will again visit the far side of the Moon, this time to collect and return samples to Earth. Chang’e-7 would land near the Moon’s south pole in 2026 as part of an effort to build a colony that China calls the International Lunar Research Station.