China and the US: Who will win Moon race in new space era?

A new age of space exploration is upon us

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During the first space race, between America and the former Soviet Union in the 20th century, 12 Americans landed on the Moon’s surface.

Today, a new space race between America and China is fuelling ambitious plans by both countries, including constructing lunar stations that would host extended crewed missions.

Both nations are targeting the same region of the Moon and have a similar timeline, with America hoping to land astronauts on the surface by 2026 and China aiming for 2030.

No human beings have been to the lunar surface since the last Apollo mission in 1972 and new, more advanced technology is needed to ensure the new era of Moon exploration is safe and sustainable.

'US should still be first'

Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Western University in Canada, told The National that America should beat China, despite the recently announced delays in Artemis, a Nasa programme that aims to send astronauts back to the Moon.

Artemis 3, a mission that involves the first American crewed lunar landing in more than 50 years, was postponed from late 2025 to September 2026.

"China’s plans are very secretive but last year they announced plans to land humans on the Moon by, or around, 2030," Mr Osinski said.

"With this schedule and assuming no more delays, America and it’s international partners should still be there first."

Nasa takes its next step to a Moon landing

Nasa takes its next step to a Moon landing

Laura Forczyk, author and founder of space consulting firm Astralytical, said the Artemis mission delays were expected and that timelines could "inevitably slip" because new technology ensuring crew safety takes time to develop.

She said Nasa was in a transition period where it is relying on contractors, including buying services at a fixed price.

"These companies have never before provided lunar services such as landers, rovers, infrastructure and spacesuits, so we can expect delays," she said.

"Nasa established the Commercial Lunar Payload Services programme to land commercial landers and rovers on the Moon with the expectation that half would fail. We all learn from these setbacks."

Nasa has contracted SpaceX and Blue Origin to develop landers that will help astronauts touch down on the lunar surface.

The space agency has already carried out a successful launch of the Space Launch System – a rocket powerful enough to send astronauts to the Moon.

The test flight in 2022 helped launch the Orion spacecraft, which will carry astronauts to the lunar surface in future missions.

Lessons learnt from the first space race

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti, a space scientist at the University of Michigan, said the new public-private partnership adopted by Nasa is important in this new space era.

"That strategy prioritises sustainable space operations, instead of chasing PR [public relations] points, as was the goal back in the Cold War," he said.

"In the new strategy, it is the companies that are designed to commercialise every aspect of the process, from rockets to robotic landers.

"This is a big lesson Nasa learnt from their scrapped Moon programme in the 1970’s, due to disappearing public interest in using tax dollars for risky and expensive missions, from start to finish."

China, meanwhile, is developing the Long March 9 rocket to send missions to the Moon.

It also announced plans to develop the International Lunar Research Station and said it would need international partners to make it a reality.

The country is quickly emerging as a global space power, having already landed uncrewed missions on the Moon and Mars.

It has also completed its new Tiangong space station in Earth's orbit, which is currently hosting astronauts.

US Congress nervous over Moon plans

American Congress members said during a hearing on the Artemis plan on Wednesday that it was important for their countrymen to be the first ones to land on the Moon.

"I remind my colleagues that we are not the only country interested in sending humans to the Moon," committee chairman Frank Lucas said.

"The Chinese Communist Party is actively soliciting international partners for a lunar mission – a lunar research station – and has stated its ambition to have human astronauts on the surface by 2030.

"The country that lands first will have the ability to set a precedent for whether future lunar activities are conducted with openness and transparency, or in a more restricted manner."

Updated: January 21, 2024, 7:18 AM