Lunar relations: The U.S., China and a new brand of space race

NASA hopes that a new international coalition will help it return to the moon

(Video: Jose Berrio for The Washington Post)


Saudi Arabia is not known for its space program. Its space agency is almost four years old. It has never launched a rocket and claims to have one astronaut: Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family who flew in space in 1985.

But the king signed off on NASA’s lunar program, a quest to explore the moon’s surface, as well as a major U.S.-led diplomatic effort to build a broad international coalition in space, even with countries that have little experience outside the Earth’s atmosphere. are or are not. – or like Saudi Arabia, countries that have bad relations with the United States. More than 20 countries have signed on to what NASA calls the Artemis Convention, a legal framework that establishes rules for the peaceful use of space and governs movements on the lunar surface.

This agreement is perhaps the most ambitious attempt at international space policy since the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. They would require countries to agree to a series of rules, such as sharing scientific findings publicly and creating “safe zones” where nations can operate without hindrance. the face of the moon

But contracts are designed to do much more. They aim to forge an alliance in space that would allow the United States to eventually return to the moon and establish a permanent presence there — an important step in what some see as a space race with China. In collaboration with the State Department, NASA has sought to build a broad coalition, based on agreements, with traditional allies such as Canada and France, as well as countries interested in building their own space programs, such as the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, and Rwanda. do

Mike Gold, a space industry official who was one of the main drafters of the agreements at NASA, said: “The reaction of the international community was clear – excitement, the hope of re-engagement of the United States to take the lead again.” Our allies generally don’t want to work with the Chinese, but if America can’t take the lead, there’s no other choice.”

In the past few years, more countries have developed space programs, which have penetrated deeper into the universe. Israel and India tried to put spaceships on the moon in 2019. Last August, South Korea launched a spacecraft that reached lunar orbit in December. And late last year, ispace, a Japanese company, sent a spacecraft to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

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But the country of most interest to the United States – and of concern – is China, which has begun to erode the technological lead that the Americans have held for decades. In 2019, China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a historic first. In 2021, it landed a rover on Mars, becoming the only country other than the United States to successfully land a rover on the Red Planet. Also at a time when the International Space Station is aging, a space station of its own has been assembled around the Earth, and the relationship between the United States and Russia, the two main partners in the ISS, has become more complicated as a result of the Russian occupation. of Ukraine.

If the Cold War space race of the 1960s required a military effort to mobilize the resources to get the Soviet Union to the moon, today’s race is more of a soft power effort designed to gather allies and create rules for peaceful use. place (The fact that NASA will cooperate with Saudi Arabia, which the U.S. government has blamed for the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist and resident Jamal Khashoggi, is evidence of how broad Washington wants to be a coalition, NASA officials said.)

Today’s space race is much more dynamic than it was 50 years ago. Instead of just reaching the moon, the United States and China want to mine it, claiming water in the form of ice and other valuable resources, such as metals and even oxygen, stored in the lunar regolith.

During the Trump administration, China’s space ambitions have been a rallying cry for NASA — and Congress — to act more quickly. In urging NASA to significantly accelerate its return to the moon, Vice President Mike Pence said in a 2019 speech that the United States was competing with China, describing it as a repeat of the space race against the Soviet Union to the moon. . He said China’s goal was to “capture the high strategic capabilities of the moon and become the world’s leading space nation.”

After President Donald Trump was defeated by Joe Biden, there was widespread concern in the space community that the new administration would kill the Artemis program. Instead, the Biden White House embraced it, making it the first human lunar exploration campaign to survive successive administrations since the Apollo era.

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It also echoed the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric about China. Bill Nelson, who was appointed NASA administrator by President Biden, called China a “very aggressive competitor” and recently issued a warning: “Watch the Chinese.” NASA is effectively barred from cooperating with China in space through a law passed in 2011 over fears it would steal US technology.

In an interview, Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA and a former astronaut, said that she is concerned about how China and others can act on the moon, especially when extracting resources, such as water ice. “Does that bother me?” she said. “Yes, especially with China.”

“That’s one of the reasons why the Artemis Agreement is so important,” she said.

The signatories of the treaty agree, for example, to provide emergency medical assistance in the case of an injured astronaut. They will also agree to protect historic sites, such as the Apollo 11 landing site. They will also promise to be transparent about their space plans and share scientific data.

The agreement would allow countries or companies to create “safe zones” so they can work to extract resources without interference, which would be critical if multiple nations were competing for the same resource in the same location – such as at the moon’s south pole. where both NASA and China want to go.

An international coalition will also aid efforts to create rules of the road in the now largely lawless expanse of space, which is increasingly polluted with debris that threatens sensitive satellites and even the ISS. The situation worsened last year when Russia blew up a dead satellite, scattering hundreds of fragments and forcing NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts to don their spacesuits and brace themselves inside their spacecraft in case the station was hit. .

Melroy said at a celebration event late last year: “We and the other original signatories of the Artemis Agreement have come together to think about that next era of space exploration and to ensure that it is conducted in accordance with the fundamental principles of responsible behavior.” .” contracts

With so many nations agreeing to a set of rules, “China and Russia now have a precedent to deal with, and pressure to determine how they’re going to meet their international obligations,” Gold said.

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NASA has become increasingly frustrated as China launches rockets, only to have their first stages return to Earth uncontrollably. This is against the norm — usually rockets enter the ocean, or return with a soft landing, as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 does — and it’s potentially dangerous for populated areas.

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It is important that all spacefaring nations be responsible and transparent in their space activities and follow established best practices, in particular, for the uncontrolled recovery of large rocket body debris—debris that could very well cause serious damage or loss of life. ” Nelson said in a statement in November.

The deal also offers another potential benefit: to make it harder for future presidential administrations to kill the Artemis program, a trend that has plagued NASA’s deep space exploration efforts for decades. That was the idea of ​​the architects of the accords, and it came true after the Biden administration picked up where Trump left off, continuing the program and continuing to involve other nations. More than 20 have now signed on, including Bahrain, Brazil, Colombia, Israel and Singapore, forming a broad coalition embraced by Republicans and Democrats.

“The occupation was a primary reason why the Artemis Contracts are so important,” Gold said. “If you look at NASA’s previous efforts, the failure to create a human exploration mission in low-Earth orbit was not only an option, it was a certainty. This is in contrast to the International Space Station, which was the crown jewel for decades. human spaceflight is universal. There were two reasons for it. First, because it was international, it received global support and cooperation. Second, there was bipartisanship within Congress.”

If the collaboration on the space station shows how cooperation between nations can advance exploration and diplomatic relations, it also shows how fragile such partnerships are. Russia has threatened to withdraw from the agreement, although it has not taken any concrete steps to do so, and its harsh words have been dismissed as lies by the United States. Still, NASA has planned how to go it alone, looking to the private sector to build commercial stations that will replace the ISS.

Meanwhile, China is building a station for itself and preparing to send people to the Moon. Its development in recent years has made it a real challenger to the United States in space, and yet it has not agreed to any of the standards set out in the treaties.

If the United States and China find themselves next door neighbors at the moon’s south pole, this could be an awkward — and tense — scenario. It’s already a cold and forbidding place, but it’s only going to get colder because of the icy relations.


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