The race to the moon between the United States and China is becoming cutthroat, and the next two years could determine who wins.
According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Beijing may establish a foothold and try to dominate the most resource-rich places on the lunar surface or block the US entirely.
“It is a fact: we’re in a space race,” Nelson said in an interview.
“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.’”
These concerns have arisen less than a month after three Chinese astronauts returned from a six-month expedition in which they assisted in developing and launching a new space station.
Nelson used the South China Sea, where the Chinese military has established bases on disputed islands. “If you doubt that, look at what they did with the Spratly Islands.”
China has claimed the contentious Spratly Islands and has exploited them to stockpile armaments and other buildings potentially large enough to house ballistic missile launchers.
NASA and China’s space programs are both working hard to reach the moon in the next years and have spent recent months doing just that.
NASA’s 26-day Artemis I mission was successful after an Orion capsule orbited the moon, bringing the space agency one step closer to its objective of establishing a human presence on the moon. According to predictions, NASA’s mission might be successful as early as 2025.
However, Nelson’s worries may be magnified by Congress’ approval of a budget that does not include the full funding requested by the agency. Despite not receiving the total budget, Nelson stated that the agency would continue to support its most essential assets, including the future Artemis II and Artemis III moon missions.
The main concern is that any future NASA missions delays could put the United States behind China. “It’s entirely possible that they could catch up and surpass us.”
“The progress they’ve made has been stunning — stunningly fast,” Armagno said.
China has dispatched orbiters, landers, and rovers to the moon and Mars in the previous few years alone. “China has had enormous success and advances in the last decade,” Nelson said.
Another primary concern is that China’s broader space objectives may involve tampering with US space systems. According to a former commander of the International Space Station, the country that wins the space race will benefit significantly from it.
“On one level, it is a political competition to show whose system works better. What they want is respect as the world’s top country. They want to be the dominant power on Earth, so going to the moon is a way to show their system is working. If they beat us back to the moon, it shows they are better than us,” said Terry Virts, the former commander of the International Space Station.
However, Nelson feels that with the approval of $24.5 billion for 2023, NASA will be able to cover the essentials. The goal for the next Artemis mission is to get it operating ‘within two years,’ according to Nelson.
“Hopefully, we can speed that up,” he said, sharing that the agency hopes to send a crew into the moon’s orbit by 2024. That goal may be ambitious, however, as Nelson told Politico.
“The good Lord willing,” said Nelson when asked if the U.S. would make it back to the moon before China.