Could China beat us to the moon and claim it as their territory?


In the 1960s there was a space race to see who could get to the moon first, American astronauts or Russian cosmonauts. As we all know, we won that battle. Over the weekend NASA administrator Bill Nelson gave an interview to Politico in which he said the US was in a new space race with China to see who would get to the moon first. Nelson even warned that China might try to claim the moon, or at least some territory, as their own.


“It is a fact: we’re in a space race,” the former Florida senator and astronaut 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.’”

He cited an Earthly example in the South China Sea, where the Chinese military has established bases on contested islands. “If you doubt that, look at what they did with the Spratly Islands.”

Nelson’s hawkish comments follow NASA’s 26-dayArtemis I mission, in which an uncrewed Orion space capsule flew around the moon. That mission, widely regarded as a success, was the first big step toward NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the lunar surface to begin building a more permanent human presence — which could come as early as 2025.

In the context of the piece, I don’t think Nelson was suggesting China might try to lay claim to the entire moon. Later in the interview he suggests there could be competition for specific landing zones. “There are only so many places on the south pole of the moon that are adequate for what we think, at this point, for harvesting water and so forth,” Nelson said. Later in the story the director of something called the Secure World Foundation pointed out that China is a signatory of an outer space treaty which would preclude them from laying claim to the moon. That doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a space race. A former ISS commander suggested the real prize for China was the chance to beat America back to the moon.


Terry Virts, a former commander of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle and a retired Air Force colonel, said the competition has political and security components.

“On one level, it is a political competition to show whose system works better,” he said in an interview. “What they really 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.”

So where do things stand as of now? Well, the US just launched the unmanned Artemis I in November and it went to the moon, did a couple of flybys and returned to earth, splashing down in the Pacific. It was a success. Up next is Artemis II which will be a manned mission to the moon but it won’t land or even go into orbit. Instead, four astronauts will use the moon to shoot them back to earth. And if that’s a success then the next launch will be Artemis III:

The big event will be Artemis III, currently scheduled for no earlier than 2025.

During the Apollo moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s, the lunar lander was packed into the Saturn V rocket. The lander for Artemis III will be a version of a Starship rocket built by SpaceX. The lunar Starship will be launched separately. Additional Starships would then launch to refill the propellant tanks of the lunar Starship before it left Earth orbit…

Once Starship is in orbit around the moon, the Space Launch System rocket will send four astronauts in an Orion capsule to the same near-rectilinear halo orbit. The Orion will dock with the Starship. Two of the astronauts will move to the Starship rocket, landing somewhere near the moon’s South Pole, while the other two astronauts will remain in orbit in Orion.

After about a week on the surface, the two moon-walking astronauts will blast off in Starship and rendezvous with Orion in orbit. Orion will then take the four astronauts back to Earth.


So 2025 is the best case but at present the progress of Artemis II is slow thanks in part to some cost cutting measures implemented in the plan. Instead of building a new capsule, NASA is pulling most of the avionics from Artemis I for reuse in Artemis II. That saves money but costs time. Meanwhile, China’s space program has been growing by leaps and bounds.

The Pentagon predicted in August that China would surpass American capabilities in space as soon as 2045.

“I think it’s entirely possible they could catch up and surpass us, absolutely,” said Lt. General Nina M. Armagno, the staff director of the United States Space Force, at a conference in Sydney the day before the launch of Shenzhou 15. “The progress they’ve made has been stunning — stunningly fast.”…

The effort to develop reusable spacecraft is running parallel to Chinese officials’ plans to put astronauts on the moon. They have not announced a precise timetable but have previously hinted that it would not happen later than 2030…

Mr. Ji and Mr. Zhou each said that considerable work had already been done on a crewed lunar lander.

“These works have laid a solid foundation for the manned lunar exploration project,” Mr. Ji said during a news conference at the Jiuquan launch center, before making an allusion to Chinese mythology: “I believe the dream of Chinese people to embrace the moon from the ninth heaven will come true in the near future.”

It’s difficult to tell but it sounds as if Artemis III might not make the 2025 planned launch (which has already been delayed by one year) and that China may try to get there sometime before 2030. So depending how things go in these two separate programs, we may indeed see something of a competition. I tend to believe competition is healthy including competition between nations. That said, I’d definitely like to see the US win this competition just as we did in the 1960s.


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