Like the tortoise outpacing the hare, the Chinese have been plodding along for a decade, developing rockets and manned space vehicles that will eventually take them to the moon.
The U.S. has been there and done that, but where the race to the moon with the Soviet Union was all about national prestige and the superiority of capitalism, this “race” is for keeps. And unless America and NASA get their act in gear, we are in danger of being left behind.
Why is that important?
“Space has always been symbolic of leadership, through prestige, that translates into strategic influence,” Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, told The Daily Beast. “China seeks to be acknowledged as the technology leader in Asia, and there is no more visible place to do that than space.”
The goal is the commercial exploitation of the moon’s enormous resources. To do that, a permanent human presence is needed on the moon. Constructing a moon base would be the first step, but very quickly after that, ways will be found to build a permanent colony — perhaps underground in massive lava tunnels.
This is not pie-in-the-sky science fiction anymore. And China and their plodding space program may pass NASA up like they’re standing still — largely because they are.
NASA for years has mulled returning human explorers to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. Not only is there plenty of science to be done, but the moon could also function as a staging base for astronauts heading to Mars. To say nothing of the commercial value of the moon’s minerals.
Last year, the Trump administration slapped an arbitrary 2024 deadline on a new manned lunar landing. That year, of course, represents the close of a possible second term for Trump. Experts actually tend to agree 2024 is possible, but only if Congress coughs up $30 billion—and if there are zero problems developing all the hardware a moon landing requires. Tools like a new heavy rocket, a manned capsule, and a lander.
NASA’s Orion capsule is over budget and has been delayed for years. The heavy-lift rocket is similarly plagued with delays. The lander hasn’t made it off the drawing board yet.
But China keeps plugging away, taking things one step at a time.
“As U.S. leadership continues to erode under President Trump, other nations, especially Japan and the E.U., may begin to consider acting more independently and join China in more substantial cooperative space projects,” Gregory Kulacki, a space expert with the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, told The Daily Beast.
It could be decades before the end-game is clear, Christopher Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, told The Daily Beast. “If you take the long view, which the Chinese always do, in 50 to 100 years we will be living in the solar system and there will be a substantial economic activity off-Earth,” he said.
“They want to be first,” Impey added of the Chinese, “and they want to be in the driver’s seat for that future.”
If you ask most space enthusiasts, the real action is taking place in the private sector where SpaceX will launch a manned version of their Dragon space cargo vessel. They’re already shuttling cargo up to the space station and soon, we’ll be able to stop depending on the Russians to get our people into orbit.
Other companies have more grandiose schemes. The way things look now, I would bet that the next American to set foot on the moon will not be sent by a government agency, but will be working for a private company looking to exploit the moon’s economic riches.