Red Moon Rising

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It’s been a big year for China. In 2021, it achieved an average of more than one launch per week for the first time in its orbital spaceflight history, making it the busiest year for its space program to date. We watched the country pass many milestones from successfully landing its first rover on Mars and test flying a hypersonic spaceplane to building the core module for its Tiangong space station and launching the first taikonauts onto the said module.

Tiangong is scheduled to finish construction this year, but it’s hardly China’s most ambitious project. The real action is happening beyond low Earth orbit — specifically, on the Moon. Say hello to the International Lunar Research Station, or ILRS). It’s a complex China hopes to build on and around the Moon consisting of orbiters and relay satellites, transportation vehicles and AI-driven rovers, and surface infrastructure to support research and potentially human life. A primary, nuclear-powered surface base will be serviced by an orbiting space station, which will conduct traffic between the Moon and Earth.

The base’s official purpose is to study lunar topography, geomorphology and chemistry, as well as to facilitate Earth and space observation and exploration of the solar system. Much of the scientific activity will be carried out by autonomous mini-rovers and a hopping robot.

China and Russia announced the ILRS as a joint project in March. Three months later, at the Global Space Exploration Conference in St Petersberg, they unveiled a roadmap that put completion of the construction phase in 2035, with the first crewed landings to follow after 2036. All of that changed in late December, however, when China’s space agency told state media it would establish a research base on the Moon by around 2027. That’s eight years ahead of schedule.

So why the dramatic change? Well, it may have something to do with the United States.

So far, 13 countries have signed onto the Artemis Accords, a set of guidelines surrounding the NASA-led mission to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon. In principle, the accords are meant to be inclusive, but not all countries see it that way. Russia has declined to join, calling them U.S.-centric, and China can’t participate even if it wanted to. In 2011, Congress passed a law barring NASA from collaborating with China on any scientific activity, citing espionage concerns.

The ILRS is Russia and China’s answer. At last year’s conference, they invited international partners to join the effort, stressing that cooperation would be needed to further research and decrease costs. None have yet signed on, though Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are still discussing the possibility, and private partners have not been ruled out.

The U.S. believes the ILRS is an aggressive challenge to American dominance in space, and China alleges that the Artemis Accords will carve up the Moon into national territories in contravention of international law. Although the two agreements technically aren’t mutually exclusive, the binary logic of superpower competition is railroading smaller countries onto one side or the other.

Many of China’s projects look almost like direct parallels to American ones. The orbiting station that will support the ILRS, for example, mimics NASA’s lunar Gateway, a similar orbiting outpost that will support Artemis. The Chinese Space Station Telescope, planned to launch in 2024, will sport a field of view 300 times larger than that of NASA’s Hubble. And last but not least, the Tiangong space station is unmistakably an alternative to the International Space Station, which is on track to be decommissioned within the next several years. In fact, NASA was so worried that Tiangong would be left the only option for countries and companies wanting to use a station in low Earth orbit that it dished out over $400 million to U.S. corporations for the construction of three private space stations by the end of the decade.

As China has rocketed along, developing an impressive private space industry and nailing all the classic landmarks for its space program since putting the first taikonauts in orbit less than 20 years ago, the U.S. is fumbling. A legal catfight between Musk and Bezos over the lunar lander contract, dysfunction following the coronavirus pandemic and other problems stalled the Artemis program, delaying the next crewed landing from 2024 to 2025. A report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General is more pessimistic. Due to numerous difficulties in the timetables for Starship, SLS and the Orion spacecraft, it argues, we won’t see a landing until 2026 at the very earliest.

As it currently stands, the U.S. and China appear locked in what can only be described as a new space race. Is competition inevitable, or can both sides find common ground to cooperate? If the Cold War is any guide, national leaders’ attempts to reach detente made valuable progress at times but always broke down. To keep space a peaceful domain open to all of humanity, then, we just may need to break history.

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