WASHINGTON — It’s not just rocket fuel that’s propelling America’s first moon shot after a half-century lull. Strategic rivalry with China’s ambitious space program is helping to boost NASA’s efforts to return to space in a bigger way, as both countries strive to put people back on the moon and establish the first moon bases.
US intelligence, military and political officials are making it clear that they see a host of strategic challenges for the US in China’s space program, echoing the US-Soviet rivalry that has sparked the race to the moon of the 1960s. It was then that China quickly matched the civilian and military space achievements of the United States and created new ones.
On the military front, the United States and China are exchanging space weaponization accusations. Senior US Defense Officials warn that China and Russia are developing capabilities to take down the satellite systems that underpin US intelligence, military communications and early warning networks.
Emergency: There is also a civilian side to the space race. The United States is wary of China taking the lead in space exploration and commercial exploitation, and being at the forefront of technological and scientific advancements that would put China at the forefront of power in the world. space and prestige on Earth.
“In a decade, the United States has gone from the undisputed leader in space to one of only two peers in a competition,” Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, said this week during a a Senate Armed Services hearing. “Everything our military does depends on space.”
In another hearing last year, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson held up an image transmitted by a Chinese rover that had just touched down on Mars. “The Chinese government…they’re going to be landing humans on the moon soon,” he said. “That should tell us something about our need to get out of our duff.”
NASA, the US civilian space agency, is expecting a new launch date this month or October for its Artemis 1 uncrewed Moonshot test. Technical issues have wiped out the first two launch attempts in recent weeks.
Laying the groundwork: China also aims to send astronauts to the moon this decade, as well as establish a robotic research station there. The United States and China intend to establish bases for intermittent crews at the south pole of the Moon next.
Russia has aligned itself with China’s lunar program, while 21 countries have joined a US-led effort to bring direction and order to civilian space exploration and development .
The parallel efforts come 50 years after American astronauts last closed the doors of an Apollo module and spaced away from the moon, in December 1972.
Some space policy pundits have spoken of a new space race, seeing big differences with Cold War-era John F. Kennedy’s drive to outdo the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and be the first to send people on the moon.
This time, the United States and China see the lunar programs as a stepping stone to progressive programs of exploration, colonization and potential exploitation of resources and other untapped economic and strategic opportunities offered by the moon, Mars and space in general.
Beyond the gains in technology, science and jobs that come with space programs, Artemis proponents point to the potential to mine minerals and frozen water on the moon, or use the moon as a base. to go prospecting on asteroids – the Trump administration has particularly highlighted the mining prospects. There is potential in tourism and other commercial endeavors.
Strategic importance: And for space more broadly, Americans alone have tens of thousands of satellites overhead in what the Space Force says is a half-trillion-dollar global space economy. The satellites guide GPS, process credit card purchases, help maintain television, radio and cell phone streams, and predict the weather. They ensure the ability of the military and intelligence community to track perceived threats.
And in a world where China and Russia are collaborating in an attempt to out-compete the United States in space, and where some are pointing the finger at private space efforts led by American billionaires as rendering expensive NASA rocket launches unnecessary. , the United States would regret leaving the glory and strategic advantages of developing the moon and space solely to the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tesla tycoon Elon Musk, Artemis supporters say.
Lunar programs signal that “space is going to be a competitive arena on the prestige front, demonstrating advanced technical expertise and know-how, and then also on the military front,” said Aaron Bateman, professor of history and of international science. Business at George Washington University and Fellow of the Space Policy Institute.
“People who support Artemis and those who see it as a competitive tool, they want the United States at the table to shape the future of exploration on other celestial bodies,” Bateman said.
There is no shortage of such warnings as the Artemis program heads for liftoff. “Beijing strives to match or exceed US capabilities in space to achieve the military, economic and prestige advantages that Washington has accrued through space leadership,” the US intelligence community warned this year in its assessment. annual threats.
A Pentagon-commissioned study group claimed last month that “China appears to be on track to overtake the United States as the dominant space power by 2045.” He called it part of a Chinese plan to promote authoritarianism and communism here on Earth.
It sparked occasional heated words between Chinese and American officials.
China’s space program was guided by peaceful principles, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July. “Some US officials are constantly smearing China’s normal and reasonable space ventures,” Zhao said.
Flying on the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, Artemis 1 is aiming for a five-week demonstration flight that would put test dummies into lunar orbit.
If all goes well, American astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land there in 2025, culminating in a program that will have cost $93 billion over more than a decade of work.
NASA intends for a woman and a person of color to be part of the first American crew to set foot on the moon again.
Lessons learned during the return to the Moon will help the next stage of crewed flights, to Mars, according to the space agency.
China’s ambitious space program, meanwhile, is a generation behind that of the United States. But its secret military-linked program is growing rapidly and creating distinctive missions that could put Beijing at the forefront of spaceflight.
Already, China has this rover on Mars, joining those of the United States already there. China created a first with its landing on the far side of the moon.
Chinese astronauts are now overhead, putting the finishing touches on a space station in permanent orbit.
A 1967 UN space treaty intended to begin shaping the railings for space exploration prohibits anyone from claiming sovereignty over a celestial body, setting up a military base there or planting weapons of mass destruction in the space.
“I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence or a fluke that it’s now in this time of what people claim is renewed great power competition that the United States is actually investing the resources to turn the clock back “said Bateman, the researcher. on space and national security. “Time will tell if this turns into a sustained program.”
Competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Does the rivalry with the Chinese “ensure more sustained interest in our space program? Of course,” Coons said. “But I don’t think it’s necessarily competition that leads to conflict.
“I think it can be a competition – like the Olympics – which just means that every team and every team is going to push higher and faster. And as a result, humanity stands to benefit,” he said. -he declares.