Most people would agree that the space race ended in 1969 when U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the lunar surface, but more than 50 years later, the moon is still the focal point as humanity gears up for what could be a new space race.
And China could be at the center of it, warns NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
“It is a fact: we’re in a space race,” Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Florida, told Politico in an interview published Jan. 1. “And it is true that we better watch out that they don’t get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory.’ “
Space agencies around the world have their sights set on the moon. That’s because the lunar surface could be rich with resources that may aid in deep space exploration and provide a wealth of scientific data to better understand planetary evolution.
Nelson warns that China could use the scientific appeal of the moon to advance its position in space and potentially claim it as its own, like it is doing on Earth with the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Both NASA and China have major lunar ambitions, which involve reaching the resource-rich lunar south pole. NASA took its first steps toward that goal in 2022, with the launch of its massive moon rocket, the Space Launch System. The launch was part of a larger program called Artemis, which will return astronauts to the lunar surface and establish a presence in lunar orbit. When those astronauts land, they will explore the moon’s south pole and work to establish a lunar base.
China also has plans to send its own crews to the moon before the end of the decade. Like NASA, China has its sights set on the lunar south pole.
Currently, space is governed by the Outer Space Treaty, which was created in 1967. The treaty says that space will be used for peaceful purposes and that no one country can claim space as its own, and that there will be no weapons of mass destruction.
Outer space, “including the moon and other celestial bodies,” is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” the treaty reads.
But according to Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist, any one country could back out of the treaty by providing a year’s notice, or they could just violate it. But so far, no one nation has done that.
“Having a strong civil space program signals to adversaries not to try to [get out of the treaty] because they may lose the resulting arms race in space,” Metzger said.
According to Metzger, the treaty also says that all countries must agree to not damage other nations’ hardware, including historic sites, like the ones from the Apollo program. But this aspect of the treaty could potentially lead to excessively large safety zones around such sites, which could effectively parcel the moon, meaning countries could be blocked from certain areas for fear of damaging others’ hardware.
But others are concerned about China’s rapidly developing lunar programs for other reasons.
Former NASA astronaut Terry Virts, for example, warned that China could cause some mischief on the moon by blocking communications or meddling in other ways.
Chinese officials, however, say that these concerns are unfounded and that the country only has peaceful plans for space.
“Outer space is not a wrestling ground,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told Politico in a statement. “The exploration and peaceful uses of outer space is humanity’s common endeavor and should benefit all. China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space, opposes the weaponization of and arms race in outer space, and works actively toward building a community with a shared future for mankind in the space domain.”
Yang Yuguang, a senior space industry observer in Beijing and vice chair of the International Astronautical Federation’s space transportation committee, agrees.
“We carry out spaceflight to develop high technology and improve economic growth and people’s living standards,” Yang told Chinese state media outlet China Daily. “We don’t take part in a space race with any other countries because competition in this regard is meaningless.”
It’s going to be challenging for any one nation to send humans to the moon and develop the hardware necessary to do that plus create a lunar base. To that end, some would argue that the U.S. and China should work together to some extent.
Victoria Samson, Washington director of the Secure World Foundation, which works to preserve the peaceful use of outer space, says that there are limited landing sites and resources that would be advantageous to crew landings, and that countries should have some level of cooperation in the event of crew emergencies on the lunar surface.
In September, Nelson addressed the issue of Chinese cooperation at the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Paris, saying that any cooperation with China is up to Beijing.
“There has to be an openness there, and that has not been forthcoming,” he said at the time.
But Nelson noted that China and NASA actually have cooperated over issues such as the orbits of Mars spacecraft but added that there is a lack of needed transparency on the Chinese side.
Nelson said that’s what needs to change in order to help foster more cooperation.