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For the first time in 50 years, NASA is on the precipice of launching a rocket that is designed to fly astronauts all the way to the moon. But instead of leaving just flags and footprints in a mad dash to beat the Soviet Union, NASA has a new rival and new goals as it races to establish a permanent human presence on the moon.
“There is a new space race - this time with China,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told German newspaper Bild in July. “We must be very concerned that China is landing on the moon and saying: ‘It’s ours now and you stay out.”
Both the US and China are leading dueling efforts to build bases on the ice-rich south pole of the moon in the 2030s. China announced plans last year to build an “International Lunar Research Station” with Russia, while more than 20 nations have signed on to the American-led Artemis program to explore the moon.
“It’s not just our machines or our people that we send into space. It’s our values. It’s who we are. It’s things like rule of law, democracy, human rights, and a free market economy” Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told CNN. “I see Artemis and our human expansion into space as a projection of our American values. It’s about diplomatically shaping this new domain that we depend on.”
China insists its lunar endeavors are purely for scientific and peaceful purposes, and Beijing took issue when Nelson accused its civil space agency of being a “military space program.”
“This is not the first time that the head of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has ignored the facts and spoken irresponsibly about China,” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said in July. “The U.S. side has constantly constructed a smear campaign against China’s normal and reasonable outer space endeavors, and China firmly opposes such irresponsible remarks.”
US Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican from Alabama, agrees with the NASA administrator, who previously served in the US Senate as a Democrat, that the US is in a second space race, even arguing in July that the “space race of today has far more on the line.”
From a military perspective, the moon could become the ultimate high ground in a potential future conflict in space because of its location. It could also serve as a critical jumping off point for future crewed missions to Mars, with water and ice collected at the lunar south pole containing the elements – hydrogen and oxygen – needed to create rocket propellant.
But Pace, who served as executive secretary of the National Space Council in the Trump Administration, describes the rivalry as a “strategic competition” different from the space race of the 1960s and even sees the potential for “lower levels of mutually beneficial cooperation” on the moon.
“This is not a crude race to plant a flag,” Pace said. “The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says space is the province of all mankind. China has a right to explore and utilize space. I just don’t want them there without us.” (China, the Russian Federation and the US are all signatories to the treaty.)
The first test flight of the Artemis program’s Space Launch System (SLS) is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Monday, August 29. If the 42-day uncrewed mission around the moon and back is a success, it will keep NASA on track to meet its goal of returning American astronauts to the moon by 2025.
China is targeting 2030 to land its astronauts, called Taikonauts, on the moon. Senior Chinese lunar program designer and engineer Ye Peijian told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV in November, “I personally think that, as long as technological research for crewed moon landings continues, as long as the country is determined, a Chinese crewed moon landing is entirely possible by 2030,” according to SpaceNews.
With NASA’s moon rocket already on the launch pad and China’s still in development, the United States has the early advantage. But Former NASA Associate Administrator Doug Loverro says the question of which country is winning this second space race depends on the ultimate target.
“If the target is to land on the moon and back, clearly the US is going to beat China. There’s no question about it,” Loverro told CNN. “But if the target is landing the first humans on Mars, the answer is a lot less certain.”
It’s also unclear which coalition has the edge when it comes to building the first base on the moon. China’s lunar ambitions aren’t restricted by changing administrations and congressional budgetary priorities.
“Our ability to build a base on the moon is highly constrained by the way we are using financial resources to get to the moon,” Loverro said.
The first three flights of the NASA’s SLS rocket will cost $4.1 billion each, according to NASA’s inspector general, who told the US Congress in March that the price tag was “unsustainable.”
Unlike Elon Musk’s SpaceX which is developing a fully reusable moon rocket called Starship, NASA’s SLS rocket is fully expendable, meaning it can only be used once. The ability to reuse rockets brings down the cost per launch dramatically, and China is considering developing a fully reusable heavy-lift rocket for future projects to the moon and beyond, according to SpaceNews.
“The real race is who is going to be the first nation on Mars,” Loverro said. “Just as leadership of the 20th century was framed by who was first on the moon, I believe the leadership of the 21st century will be framed by who is first on Mars.”