April 12, 2024

Why China could beat the US back to the moon

ROn the surface of the moon, about 10,000 kilometers separate humanity’s past and future. It’s about the distance between the Sea of ​​Tranquility — where Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed on July 20, 1969 — and the Shackleton Crater at the moon’s south pole. In the Shackleton area, astronauts from the US and, most likely, taikonauts from China (from the Chinese word ‘taikong’, meaning space or cosmos) will land sometime in or before 2030, taking advantage of local ice deposits harvested for water, breathing oxygen and even rocket fuel.

If we hear the US tell it, we will be the first to block the landing. “The statement I’ve heard at NASA is, ‘We want to be there to greet them when they arrive,’” says Howard McCurdy, professor emeritus of public administration and policy at American University.

If the space agency sticks to its idea of ​​having the Artemis II crew make a looping trip around the far side of the moon late next year, and land the Artemis III crew in the Antarctic in 2026 or 2027, the next boot pressed on the moon will indeed be American. But don’t count on it.

NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket has flown only once, in late 2022. Although it successfully sent an unmanned Orion spacecraft on a 26-day lunar mission, subsequent analysis found that the rocket released foam in much the same way as the shuttle Columbia did did during his mission. launch in 2003 – a launch anomaly that led to the catastrophic loss of the shuttle during its reentry through the atmosphere. Orion’s heat shield, meanwhile, could not fully withstand the 5,000°F fires upon reentry, so the spacecraft could be considered safe to carry a crew. And what about the lunar lander? NASA has placed the task of delivering the 21st century version of the Apollo program’s lunar module in the hands of SpaceX, which plans to build the spacecraft from a modified version of the upper stage of its Starship rocket – a rocket which has yet to be built. a completely successful flight.

Finally, there is money. NASA’s 2024 budget is $24.875 billion, which represents a small reduction from the $25.4 billion it allocated in 2023. In the Apollo era, when the US went from a standing start to the moon’s surface eight years later in 1961, space spending peaked. at about 4% of the federal budget; now it is 0.4%.

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“If you don’t have the money, the scheme will fail,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. No one believes we’re going back to the glory days of 4%, but we don’t need to be there to meet the 2027 target. “The [inflation adjusted] The $29 billion or $30 billion we had in 1999 is where we need to be now,” Pace said.

However, even that relatively modest increase does not appear to be happening, leaving an open field for China. As SpaceNews has reported, Beijing released its Space Blue Book on February 26, detailing its plans for 2024 and beyond, and they are as impressive as they are ambitious. The state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), a Fortune 500 company, which works closely with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) – China’s NASA – plans a total of 70 launches in 2024, involving more than 290 satellites, cargo ships and manned spacecraft in orbit. The fast-growing private sector has another 30 launches on its manifesto.

Two different crews will rotate in and out of China’s Tiangong (or Heavenly Palace) space station, and two unmanned cargo flights will resupply the outpost. At multiple launch sites, including an offshore spaceport off the coast of Haiyang and a commercial spaceport on Hainan Island, the country will fly several versions of its Long March booster, including the heavy-duty Long March 5, which is scheduled for four launches this year. years and could be used for both orbital and deep space missions.

It is that last part of China’s space mission that is attracting the most attention in the West, especially the planned flights to the moon. On March 24, the Queqiao-2 satellite entered lunar orbit, where it will coordinate an expected increase in communications traffic from the moon’s surface. Later this year, the CASC plans to take advantage of that new radio infrastructure when it launches Chang’e-6, the first-ever mission to return samples from the far side of the moon. In 2026, the Chang’e-7 orbiter, lander and rover will land on the moon’s south pole. Scheduled for 2028, Chang’e-8 will be a lander, rover and robot designed to test resource use – especially ice harvesting and processing – and will eventually be put to work on a manned lunar base .

The Blue Book calls for the first taikonauts to land on the moon before 2030 and for an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) to be established in the next decade with multiple partners including Russia, Belarus, Pakistan and South Africa. Those timelines are not unrealistic, according to experts who can speculate.

“There’s no question that the technology they have is almost competitive with us,” said Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s administrator from 2001 to 2005 and now a professor of public administration at Syracuse University. “Two years ago I wouldn’t have said that, but they are really improving so much [the 2030] purpose is conceivable.”

McCurdy adds: “We did it in eight years; they could do it in six.

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Part of what makes China such a formidable force in reaching the moon is its command and control economics and policymaking. NASA’s goals often change with each new occupant of the Oval Office: Pres. Richard Nixon ended the Apollo program and replaced it with the shuttles; Busy. Ronald Reagan reduced NASA’s focus on shuttle-centricity and focused on building a space station; Busy. George W. Bush put the US back on the path to the moon and also to Mars; President Barack Obama scrapped those plans in favor of a mission to an asteroid; Busy. Donald Trump pulled the plug on the asteroid and put the moon back on the agenda. None of this creates the kind of consistency that allows technology to be developed and scaled and long-term goals achieved.

The Chinese autocracy avoids such policy messiness and proceeds in invariable half-decade increments with its serial five-year plans. The current one, which runs from 2021 to 2025, does not include a manned moon landing because it falls outside that time frame, but Beijing has still set the 2030 goal.

“They have ambitions to do this,” Pace said. “People have said the deadline is quite ambitious, but that’s probably not the case [try] unless they had a lot of confidence in doing it. The political consequences of being wrong would be quite serious.”

As with the US, money plays a major role, but in the case of China there is plenty to be had. Officially, China’s space budget is significantly lower than NASA’s, at $14.15 billion last year. But it’s that question of ‘official’ versus ‘unofficial’ that makes the difference. China’s space sector is inextricably linked to China’s defense sector, and the same deep pockets that make China’s military the largest in the world would provide a generous source of additional funding for the country’s space program — even if Beijing doesn’t open its books. for public inspection.

“They’re very opaque about what they’re doing and how much they’re spending,” O’Keefe says.

“Is China’s Manned Space Program Embedded in the Military? You bet,” Pace says. “Does the military contribute to the manned space program? Sure’.”

None of this necessarily means that the lavishly funded Chinese space program and the more sparsely funded American one are in a race to reach the moon – at least not a race on par with the bitter Cold War competition between the US and the Soviet Union in the sixties. .

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“China is certainly not racing the US to the moon or anywhere else in space,” Gregory Kulacki, the China project manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told TIME in 2019.[China] can’t win a race [it] Lost 50 years ago.”

O’Keefe agrees: “No, this isn’t a race,” he says. “It’s not something that has any parallels to what we went through in the 1960s, thank God.” O’Keefe adds: China is certainly taking its time. “The Chinese are deeply committed to moving toward a lunar presence and have worked very hard over the past 20 years to prepare for this.”

In some ways, China’s goal of landing on the moon has actually had a salutary effect on the U.S. space program, making U.S. policymakers more focused on the moon’s presence than the country had previously been, even though we are not in direct competition with China . “We definitely became more interested in going to the moon when they announced they were putting Chinese astronauts on the moon,” McCurdy says.

But the lack of a real space race in the 21st century probably doesn’t mean we would take the next step and actually cooperate with China. The ILRS has a US-led counterpart in the Artemis Accords, where 36 countries have so far signed up to collaborate with NASA on lunar exploration, contributing both hardware and crew for an eventual lunar base. The model is similar in many ways to the 15-nation consortium that built, maintained and crewed the International Space Station (ISS). China is not part of that partnership, in part because of the Wolf Amendment, a 2011 U.S. law that bans NASA from working with China without direct approval from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, for fear of technological theft. While the amendment is often presented as an absolute barrier to cooperation beyond Earth, Pace, however, sees it more as a speed bump.

“As a political symbol, the Wolf Amendment is fine,” he says. “But in practice, if there is a compelling project that we think is scientifically valuable – like perhaps environmental monitoring or data sharing – NASA just needs to notify Congress.” Of course, Congress could say no, but the amendment at least allows for a yes.

That could theoretically open the door to a lunar rapprochement between Washington and Beijing, but probably not before economic and military tensions between the two global giants have eased. There has been much talk about the idea that modern US-Russia cooperation aboard the ISS and the 1975 joint Apollo-Soyuz mission helped the two countries overcome their Cold War enmity, but policy experts are more likely to see it as the reverse. – where diplomacy on the ground leads to handshakes from the entire planet.

“Space is a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator,” Pace says. As long as the US and China have very different views on democracy, hegemony and a fundamental investment in an open society, we will likely take separate paths into orbit and on to the moon. “It’s not just our machines or even our astronauts that we’re sending into space,” Pace says. “They are our values.”

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