Briefing

The new space race

To the moon and back

The original space race was a key part of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the USSR competed to be the first country on the moon. Now almost 70 years later, the U.S. is in a new space race with a new competitor: China. Here's everything you need to know:

Why is there a new space race?

Simply put, the moon is prime real estate and both the U.S. and China want to stake their claim. 

This year, the U.S. launched its 26-day Artemis I mission, sending an Orion space capsule around the moon before returning to Earth. This was a step toward the U.S. once again putting people on the moon, but this time with the hopes of a more permanent setup, writes Politico.

This objective is at risk because of China's lunar military potential. The country has expressed interest in landing taikonauts, the Chinese word for astronauts, on the moon as well as creating a space governance system. NASA has warned that China could potentially lay claim to prime resource areas on the moon under the guise of research, potentially barring others countries' access and potentially endangering U.S. satellites. 

The U.S.-proposed moon base would likely be collaborative between multiple nations. However, in the 1990s, China was thought to have stolen U.S. space technology. This led to the Wolf Amendment, passed in 2011, which prevented NASA from ever collaborating with China. In turn, there are talks of China potentially launching a joint moon mission with Russia instead.

"It is a fact: we're in a space race," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, 'Keep out, we're here, this is our territory.'" He noted that China lays claim to the South China Sea despite it being considered international waters. 

At the same time, China's space technology is rapidly improving raising worries that China might reach its goal earlier than expected. 

How is China improving its space technology?

China has shown quick advancement in space technology over the past year. One of the most prominent achievements was the launching of a new space station in November. The Shenzhou 15 mission launched three taikonauts, sending them to the newly built Tiangong space station to wrap up construction. This makes China just the third country to operate a space station, after the U.S. and Russia.  

The new station is technologically advanced and can support other astro-goals that China hopes to accomplish including launching a new space telescope, running experiments on life in space, and launching missions to Mars, writes Forbes

Along with the space station, China also launched robotic landers and rovers on the moon and Mars. In addition, the country was the first to use landers and rovers to collect samples from the far side of the moon, continues Politico. "It's entirely possible they could catch up and surpass us, absolutely," remarked Space Force Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno. "The progress they've made has been stunning — stunningly fast."

China's great improvements to its space program have concerned the U.S. government.

How does the space race play into ongoing tensions?

The U.S. and China have been experiencing tension for many years now, making this space race especially contentious. Recent political conflict has included the U.S. giving vocal support to Taiwan, a territory that China has long claimed.

Additionally, China is a strong ally of Russia which the U.S. and other Western nations have condemned for its invasion of Ukraine. China may potentially launch a joint moon project with Russia, which would leave the U.S.'s space power and moon claim at even more significant risk. 

China has been vying to solidify its standing as a frontrunner in innovation and combat, and landing on the moon could achieve that. The country has also shown that it may be able to set up communications between the Earth and the moon via existing satellites, which could spell trouble. 

"There is potentially mischief China can do on the moon," Terry Virts, former commander of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle, commented to Politico. "If they set up infrastructure there they could potentially deny communications." China has responded to these claims saying, "Outer space is not a wrestling ground," and that, "China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space." China is also part of the Outer Space Treaty which prevents countries from staking a claim on celestial bodies.

Either way, the U.S. has also been working to get back on the moon, hoping to launch moon mission Artemis II by 2024, and Artemis III, which will put humans on the moon, by 2025, per The New York Times. However, China's moon landing date, "keeps getting closer and closer" according to Nelson, and the U.S. will only beat them there "the good Lord willing."

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