In Moon Race, Russian Crash Shows the Only U.S. Rival Is China

From a Wall Street Journal story by Natasha Khan headlined “In New Moon Race, Russian Crash Shows the Only U.S. Rival Is China”:

A new Cold War-style competition has put the moon back at the center of global space ambitions, but the U.S. has a new chief rival.

More nations and companies are venturing into space, crowding the calendar with planned robotic landings for lunar research. But, like the scramble to plant boots on the moon in the 1960s, the race to establish a base on the lunar surface boils down to a contest between the world’s superpowers. Only this time it is Beijing, not Moscow, that Washington is up against.

China has been aggressively ramping up its space program since the U.S. barred it from working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2011 on security grounds. After a string of triumphs in recent years, it set its sights on starting to build a permanent moon base around the end of the decade—reviving U.S. lunar ambitions, with echoes of America’s all-out effort to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

Only American astronauts have stepped on the moon’s surface—and for decades there had been little interest in repeating the feat. Exploration efforts instead focused on robotic missions into deeper space.

Two years ago, China said it would join Russia in building a moon base and invited other interested nations to take part. But decades after the Soviet Union beat the world into space, Russia is a waning space power. Last month, a Russian lander crashed on the country’s first mission to the moon since Luna-24 in 1976, another setback for Moscow’s effort to again become a force in space exploration.

Yury Borisov, the director general of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, said “the invaluable experience that our predecessors gained in the 1960s-1970s was almost lost” because of a disconnect between generations, according to state news agency TASS. After the moon crash, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia would persevere in its lunar program, TASS said.

While Russia remains dependable at launching satellite payloads and ferrying crew and cargo to the International Space Station, around 250 miles from Earth, and while it has more than two decades’ experience helping to run the ISS, its failures in more-challenging space exploration mean China is at mission control in the partnership.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions have further strained Russian space plans. Doubts about its moon missions, swelling before the invasion, have grown faster with the imposition of technology controls and restrictions aimed at Russia’s aerospace and space sectors.

China’s technological achievements in space have outstripped Russia’s. For example, it landed a rover on Mars on its first try in 2021. The Soviets landed a rover in 1971 after earlier failures, but it broke down almost immediately.

In this latest moon race, Washington and Beijing are recruiting allies.

The U.S. has been leading the Artemis Accords. Devised by the Trump administration as China laid out increasingly ambitious lunar plans, these bind the U.S. and 27 other countries in a collaboration that lays out a framework for the peaceful exploration of the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies. The Artemis program aims for humans to return to the moon by 2025, and to establish a sustained presence there.

Chinese critics bristled at the framework, calling it a U.S. attempt to stymie China and set rules that favor its own interests. In one 2020 article, the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, criticized Washington’s “Cold War mentality against space rivals.”

The accords and the U.S. alliance they foster are a hurdle for Beijing, given the prohibition against working with NASA as well as Washington’s more recent efforts to deny China access to cutting-edge technologies.

“Space relations between the two global powers have gotten more frosty,” said Namrata Goswami, a co-author of the book “Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space.” She noted that the Biden administration has been tightening controls on exports of semiconductors and sensitive satellite technologies to China.

China has forged ahead on its own. Barred by that 2011 law from sending its astronauts to the ISS—which has hosted more than 200 astronauts from more than a dozen countries—the country built its own space station.

Still, as more nations invest in their own programs, there is symbolism in working together. India sparked an outpouring of national pride last month by becoming the fourth nation to achieve a controlled landing on the moon, and the first to do so in the south polar region. Hours before the landing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who had signed the U.S. accords on a state visit to Washington in June—used a summit under the Brics grouping, which includes China and Russia, to float the idea of a Brics Space Exploration Consortium.

“It will be very difficult for nations to keep a foot in both camps,” said Christopher Newman, a professor of space law and policy at the U.K.’s Northumbria University. While there may still be some pockets of European collaboration with China, Newman said, it is difficult to envision large-scale projects unless U.S.-China relations improve significantly.

China, which in 2019 became the first country to land a rover on the far side of the moon, plans more lunar missions to retrieve samples, seek water at the south pole and land astronauts. It aims to launch the Chang’e-7 probe in three years to start exploring for resources on the lunar south pole and the Chang’e-8 around 2028 to begin construction of the International Lunar Research Station, according to an April article on the central government’s website.

China envisions a lunar base “jointly built by many countries,” according to a document posted on the website of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs that includes a visualization of the plan. The project would include tapping potential lunar energy sources, a system of transportation to and from Earth, communications and navigation infrastructure, as well as research facilities, the document shows.

The moon is attractive as a base because it could reduce the need for massive rockets to lift entire spacecraft, their fuel and payloads out of Earth’s clinging gravity field, said Simeon Barber, a planetary scientist at the Open University in the U.K. Water is thought to be the low-hanging fruit there, Barber said. “Can we extract lunar ice and use it for drinking water for astronauts in a lunar base? Or split it into oxygen and hydrogen to fuel spacecraft at the moon ready for onward journeys?”

After Russia’s crash, China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t directly respond to a question about collaboration with Moscow in space, but a spokesman said that “exploring the universe is a common cause for humanity,” and that its lunar research base is “open to all international partners.”

Members of the Beijing-based Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization—which include Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Thailand—have signed agreements to join Chin’s effort. Venezuela officially signed up in July. The International Lunar Research Station Cooperation Organization aims to complete signing agreements with space agencies and countries by October. Many of the countries have space programs that mostly focus on Earth-observation and ground-monitoring technologies.

The Ukraine war has further muddled Russia’s space partnerships. In particular, some European companies and agencies have ceased work with Roscosmos. The joint European-Russian ExoMars mission was canceled last year following the invasion, just months before it was to launch on a Russian rocket, after many years of planning.

At the end of the day, China may well be able to go far on its own, said “Scramble for the Skies” co-author Goswami. Its partnerships, she said, are about building legitimacy and creating an alternative to the U.S.-led Artemis Accords.

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