The US National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) is worried that China’s rising lunar ambitions might lead it to “take over” and claim large portions as it did in the South China Sea (SCS).
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has been raising this alarm since last year. However, China flatly denies the claim and instead accuses the US of stoking the “China threat” narrative to achieve its geopolitical goals.
Experts, however, deny the possibility, pointing to the immense financial and logistical costs besides the massive diplomatic and military repercussions of space-based conflicts on Earth, which China would have to bear. China would naturally not take actions that shift the narrative to the US’ favor and keep pushing space missions for purely exploratory and resource-harvesting purposes.
It would also be inconsistent with Beijing’s advocacy of “peaceful uses of outer space” and treaties banning its weaponization. Moreover, such actions would trigger a massive rift with Russia, with which it has planned a joint lunar exploration base since Moscow has nearly identical positions on space issues.
It is believed China might control specific strategically valuable lunar areas with ice, eliminating the need to transport water from the Earth. Water ice is also an essential source of oxygen and hydrogen in rocket fuel. This fits in with China’s larger plan to use the Moon as a relay base for missions to Mars.
Moon Might Meet Same Fate As South China Sea
Nelson, a former astronaut who flew a six-day mission on the space shuttle Columbia, said in a recent interview with Politico, “(If the Chinese) get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory.’ If you doubt that, look at what they did with the Spratly Islands.”
Nelson’s comments came after NASA’s 26-day Artemis I mission, in which an un-crewed Orion space capsule flew around the Moon.
Overall a success, the mission was the first step toward NASA’s plan to resume moon exploration with subsequent astronaut landings by 2025. This will be achieved by the Artemis II and Artemis III missions to lay the foundation for a permanent human presence.
Meanwhile, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) plans three lunar missions between 2025 and 2028 and will bring back more lunar samples.
China tasted its first massive success when Chang’e-4 robotic spacecraft became the first to land on the Moon’s dark side (or the far side) on January 2019. Chang’e-4 had both a lander and a rover.
The Chang’e-5 followed this in late 2020, carried by a Long March-5 rocket, and successfully brought back 1.73 kilograms of lunar samples. On Monday, CNSA’s chief designer announced Chang’e-6, which would fly to the Moon around 2025 and bring back at least 2 kilograms of samples.
Chang’e-7 would follow this. It would land on the lunar south pole (dark side or the far side) in 2026 to look for water. Chang’e-8 would land at the same site by 2028 to form a research base with the infrastructure transported by Chang’e-7.
The Department of Defense (DoD) noted China’s space and lunar exploration achievements in the 2022 report to Congress. It particularly named the Queqiao relay satellite launched in 2018 to a stable orbit around an Earth-Moon Lagrange Point and the Zhurong rover on Mars in May 2021, suggesting steady progress towards its stated Earth-Moon-Mars exploration and transport route.
US, China Might Compete, Not Fight Over Moon
However, space law experts and scientists raise issues of technological complexity, political will, and finance that would face any country trying to militarize celestial bodies.
Victoria Samson, Washington director of the Secure World Foundation, doesn’t believe the US and China are headed for an imminent clash on the Moon. The farthest they could go is “compete” for resources and landing sites on the Moon.
Both are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which bars countries from making territorial claims on celestial bodies.
“(To avoid the competition between them) there is a need to engage with China,” she was quoted in the Politico report. Svetla Ben-Itzhak writes that the nearly 39 million square kilometers (14.6 million square miles) surface area of the Moon, which is five times the size of Australia, makes any permanent control of the Moon immensely difficult. If still achieved, it would only be temporary.
“It is not only illegal, but it is also technologically daunting – the costs of such an endeavor would be extremely high, while the potential payoffs would be uncertain,” Ben-Itzhak wrote in the joint article with R. Lincoln Hines in The Conversation. Both are assistant professors of space issues and study China’s space program at Air University.
It is also important to note that the political assessment of China’s moon intentions comes from a top space official, not a member of the President Joe Biden administration. Official positions, critical or supportive, on other countries’ policies, would come from the State Department or, even more importantly, the White House.
This suggests the US government is unofficially pushing the claim without adopting it as a formal position, indicating a political motive.
Moreover, the kind of colonization Nelson claims would happen only when space travel becomes commonplace over the next hundreds of years, where the costs and logistics of traveling outside the Earth are as normalized as taking an international flight.
The second space race in general, and Moon exploration in particular, has just resumed after a hiatus of nearly 30 years. Moon travel would have become an everyday affair if it had continued during the gap.