NASA hasn’t sent another soul to the lunar surface since 1972. But earlier this year, China made history when it became the first nation to land an uncrewed spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a feat it hailed as opening “a new chapter in humanity’s exploration of the moon.”
NASA and its contractors are still struggling to build a spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to space, eight years after the last space shuttle landed at the Kennedy Space Center. Meanwhile, China has developed a monster rocket and last year launched more rockets than any other country on Earth, though none with people on board.
And while NASA is working to determine the future of the aging International Space Station, China is planning to launch a station of its own within the next few years.
China plans to send another spacecraft to the moon this year. It also has set its sights on the same remote swath of lunar real estate the United States is rushing to reach: the moon’s south pole, where water from ice could prove not only life sustaining, but might also provide the ingredients — hydrogen and oxygen — for propellant to send rockets to other destinations. Though barren, gray and lifeless, it offers a key steppingstone to deeper space exploration and enormous prestige to whoever gets there first.
The United States and China aren’t the only countries eyeing the lunar south pole. On Monday, India launched its Chandrayaan spacecraft on mission there. If successful, India would become the fourth country, after the U.S., the former Soviet Union and China to soft land a spacecraft on the lunar surface.
The United States has noticed China’s ambitions, which have touched off a debate over how to respond and what China’s intentions really are at a time when space is seen as a critical warfighting domain.
The Trump administration and hawkish conservatives have cast the competition as a power struggle with enormous consequences — the moon as the cosmic equivalent of the South China Sea, where China has expanded a military presence that is of concern to the Pentagon.
Earlier this year, the White House announced NASA would dramatically speed up its own mission to return to the moon, initially planned for 2028, but now, at the direction of Vice President Pence, moved up to 2024.
“Make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” he said in a speech in March calling for the shortened timeline. China’s landing on the far side of the moon “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation,” he said.
U.S. officials fear the Chinese advance in space.
“Looking at Chinese behavior in other shared domains — the South China Sea, cyberspace — they’ve given us pause for concern,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in an interview. “And so looking out in space, it’s hard to imagine that they will behave any better than they’d behaved in other areas where they felt that their national interests are at stake.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who proposed a moon base during his presidential bid in 2012, said China is “going to rapidly become the only country that can compete with us for the moon and Mars.”
“They want to prove they are our technological superior,” he said. If China can get “to the south pole before we do, there’s a very real possibility we will find it impossible to operate there.”
China has demonstrated growing military capabilities in space. In 2007, it took out a dead weather satellite with a missile, putting the United States and others on notice that the national security satellites they have in orbit — used for missile defense, precision-guided munitions and spying — were vulnerable.
“China views space as the soft underbelly of the U.S. military,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But he and others think it is wrong to assume China’s activities in space put it and the United States in a warlike race for a single goal. Rather, some analysts said, the countries are engaged in a long-term power competition for national pride and technological development.
China’s rover is a “science experiment,” said Bleddyn Bowen, a professor of international relations who focuses on space at the University of Leicester. “It’s not a Dr. Evil laser.”
The notion that the United States has to stake its claim in space or else “we’re going to lose to China” is “absurd,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank that focuses on space. He added that some are “trying to prop up the China threat as rationale for their own policy goals.”
Instead of competing in space, many think the United States should partner with China on civil space exploration and science missions, as it does with Russia, another potential adversary. That was made more difficult in 2011, with the passage of a provision written by former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) that requires NASA to get congressional approval before partnering with China, as well as having the FBI certify that the cooperation would not jeopardize national security.
Wolf’s intent was to keep China from stealing secrets and technology, but it hasn’t slowed China’s progress, officials said.
“Our policy of excluding China from human spaceflight and exploration missions to the moon and beyond has not slowed its rise as a space power,” Harrison said during a hearing earlier this year of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “Worse, it may create an incentive for China to build an alternative coalition for space exploration that could undermine our traditional leadership role in this arena.”
From the Apollo lunar landings on, no other country has matched NASA’s space record. It has sent probes to every planet in the solar system. It has landed robots on Mars eight times. Last month, it announced it would fly a car-sized quadcopter to Saturn’s moon, Titan, which scientists think could yield clues to life on other planets.
But NASA has lost some of the prestige and swagger it had 50 years ago during the Apollo era, when the agency was the envy of the world, an inspiration and the embodiment of the American can-do ethos. No humans have returned to the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972. Since the space shuttle was retired eight years ago, NASA has not had the ability to fly astronauts anywhere. Instead, it pays Russia for rides to the space station at a cost of more than $80 million a seat.
In 2014, NASA awarded contracts, worth $6.8 billion combined, to Boeing and SpaceX for the development of spacecraft that could once again fly humans to space from U.S. soil. Both companies have suffered setbacks and delays, including SpaceX’s Dragon capsule exploding during a test. It’s also not clear whether either will be able to fly people this year.
China has faced problems as well. In 2017, its new rocket, the Long March 5, suffered a failure shortly after liftoff. There are also reports that it has suffered more recent setbacks, delaying its more ambitious missions. China also does not have the heritage in space that the United States has built up over years.
Still, “from a standing start in 2000, they’ve come an enormous way, and with a great deal of speed,” said Mark Albrecht, who served as the executive secretary of the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush.
And unlike the United States, which under different presidential administrations has directed NASA to shoot for the moon, then Mars, then the moon again, China has remained steadfast about its goals and what it wants to achieve.
Sending a rover to the side of the moon that perpetually faces away from Earth was a giant leap for the Chinese program. Landing there is made extraordinarily difficult because controllers on Earth can’t communicate with the spacecraft with a direct radio signal, a problem the Chinese overcame with a relay satellite.
China is planning another mission to the lunar surface later this year that would bring back rock samples. It eventually wants to build a base at the lunar south pole for the same reason NASA does: water.
There is ice in the craters at the pole and near continuous sunlight that could be used for solar power. The water can be used not only for sustaining life, but its components, hydrogen and oxygen, can also be used as rocket propellant, making the moon a “gas station in space,” as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has called it. That, in turn, would allow for exploration deeper into the solar system.
Ross has pushed to cut regulations to allow the space economy to “ignite steady economic growth in the industry,” which he said could reach $1 trillion by 2040.
The quest for resources and the possible economic benefits of space — though many think they are years or decades away — has also motivated the Chinese, analysts said.
The Chinese have “woken up to the possibility that space is not just for exploration, but can tremendously benefit the economic development and national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” said Namrata Goswami, an author and analyst who studies China’s space program. “This is due to the fact that scientists point out trillions of dollars of resources to be had in space, including the lunar surface and asteroids. This is serious business for China.”
In 2014, China for the first time allowed non-state-owned companies to launch rockets, she said, as part of a push to harness the innovation of the private sector and to help it compete in the way companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX have helped to push NASA. And on Thursday iSpace said it became the first private Chinese company to launch a rocket to orbit.
“China has watched keenly and with respect the success of U.S. space entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk of SpaceX and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin,” she said. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
China’s plan to assemble its own space station comes as the United States debates what to do with the International Space Station, which is showing its age. Last year, the White House announced a plan to cut off direct funding for the station by 2025 and to turn over portions of it to the commercial sector. That plan has not yet materialized, and there are efforts in Congress to extend the life of the station.
But the future of the station, and the United States’s role in low Earth orbit, is uncertain.
“We don’t want to abandon low Earth orbit to, say, a Chinese station,” Pace, of the National Space Council, said. “We want to continue human presence and experimentation in low Earth orbit. We’re not going to build another million-pound facility, as station is. So what are we going to do? Going forward we’d like to keep the partnership together, and after the space station. But what does that look like?”
Some fear a future where the ascendant Chinese space program becomes the only alternative.
“The optics could be really bad if the International Space Station is coming back into the atmosphere in a ball of flames while the Chinese are putting theirs up there,” Weeden said. “That could be a huge problem politically.”