A new space race is on, and this time it’s the U.S. versus China rather than the former Soviet Union.
In the coming years, NASA and the China National Space Administration separately plan to send a series of missions to the moon with the goal of having a strong presence on its south pole — heightening the likelihood of tension and conflict.
The moon’s south pole is appealing to both countries because it contains what NASA calls water ice — a critical resource for exploration and survival.
“Water ice represents life support,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in March. “It’s air to breathe. It’s water to drink. But it’s hydrogen and oxygen, which is rocket fuel and it’s available in hundreds of millions of tons at the poles of the moon.”
Several other countries, including Russia, are interested in lunar exploration, research and the south pole. But the U.S. has a history of working with European countries, Japan and Russia on other space missions, including the International Space Station.
Not China: An amendment in the annual NASA funding bill named for former Virginia Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf prevents the agency from working with China on any space programs, unless it receives FBI certification that there’s no national security threat.
Clearly, U.S. policymakers have decided that China represents the more pressing challenge to American interests, at least when it comes to space policy.
“We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s and the stakes are even higher,” Vice President Mike Pence said in March during a meeting of the National Space Council.
“Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent space-faring nation.”
Several elements of NASA’s Artemis mission to the moon — named for the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology — are already underway.
The agency has received billions in funding to develop the Space Launch System, the largest rocket ever built that will take humans back to the moon and eventually Mars; the Orion capsule, where astronauts will stay during the trip; and the Gateway, the first interplanetary spaceship that is designed to orbit the moon and serve as a relay to the surface.
But whether the agency will get the additional funding it needs to send Americans back to the moon in 2024 has become a political debate with Democrats questioning the Trump administration’s new timetable.
NASA originally asked Congress for $21 billion in funding for all of its programs for fiscal 2020. But at that time — on March 11 — the plan was to go back to the moon in 2028.
Just over two weeks later, Pence announced that should happen in the next five years, instead. The new timetable puts the return just inside the end of a potential second term for President Donald Trump, which could boost his eventual GOP successor, whether that’s Pence or someone else.
The next day, Bridenstine sat in front of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee — the panel in charge of NASA funding, which is led by New York Democrat José E. Serrano.
“As you well know, 75 percent of our profession is perception, and the perception by many is that it is being accelerated so that they can come in and excite the country a few months before November,” Serrano said.
NASA later asked Congress for an additional $1.6 billion to boost its lunar-specific programs during fiscal 2020. None of that money was included in the House’s NASA funding bill, in part because the budget amendment was sent just three days before the committee released its bill.
The GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee hasn’t yet released its NASA spending bill.
Some members of that panel are equally skeptical of the timeline change.
“I would just say that our policy decisions here need to be driven by the science, not by political calendars,” Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen said.
Physical, legal hurdles
How quickly a return mission to the moon happens could have some influence on which nations have access to the water ice as well as which countries develop systems needed for humans to survive on the much longer trip to Mars.
But first come, first served isn’t exactly the legal precedent in space, which is still governed by the clunkily named “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.”
The Outer Space Treaty, as it’s mostly referred to, was ratified by more than 60 countries, including the United States, China and the former Soviet Union.
In addition to establishing that no nation could put nuclear weapons in outer space, Article II states: “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Abiding by that treaty means that no country can claim the moon, even if solely for scientific purposes.
Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, said the 1967 agreement is “one of the most important treaties of the 20th century.”
But that treaty was written more than 50 years ago when geopolitics, technology and understanding of space were vastly different than they are today. It hasn’t been put to the test, and withdrawal is always an option for the U.S., China or other signatories.
There is a separate agreement dedicated to the moon, but that was never ratified by the U.S. or China. The so-called Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — or simply, the “Moon Agreement” — declared that “natural resources are the common heritage of mankind” and called for the creation of an “international regime” to “govern the exploitation” of the moon’s resources “when such exploitation is about to become feasible.”
The Senate ultimately decided not to ratify the treaty due to concerns it would bind when and how companies could operate in outer space.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. would sign on to a treaty with similar language today, considering that in 2015 Congress passed and former President Barack Obama signed a law that recognizes private property rights once a resource is extracted from the moon.
So for now, it appears the space race is on track to continue, with the Trump administration adamant the U.S. space program not share in the spotlight on the moon, or eventually on Mars.
“The United States must remain first in space … not just to propel our economy and secure our nation, but above all because the rules and values of space, like every great frontier, will be written by those who have the courage to get there first and the commitment to stay,” Pence said in March when announcing the faster timetable for lunar missions.
China, for its part, has also indicated it sees the somewhat inevitable dispute over territory on the moon in a manner similar to how it views disagreements over islands and regions of the South China Sea claimed by more than one country.
In 2017, the commander of China’s lunar exploration program, Ye Peijian said, “The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now, even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.”