The New Space Race: China’s Quest for Lunar Dominance in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, a new space race is unfolding right before our eyes, challenging the longstanding dominance of the United States in outer space exploration.

For the first time since the historic contest with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, a formidable contender has emerged on the horizon, and this time, they mean business.

China’s aggressive plans and unwavering commitment to space exploration are poised to change the game, and it’s a development that warrants our attention.

As we delve into this space race, we’ll focus on one of its pivotal aspects: the race to establish a permanent base at the lunar South Pole.

1. Artemis vs. China: The Lunar Race

artemis program logo
Credit: NASA

We have the NASA Artemis program, a collaborative effort between the United States, Canada, Japan, Europe, and several smaller agencies who’ve signed onto the Artemis Accords.

It’s essential to note that the U.S. plays a leading role in Artemis, as it spearheaded the creation of both the program and the accords.

The Artemis Accords, an international framework for lunar exploration, were set into motion by President Trump in 2017, reflecting the United States’ commitment to retaining its preeminence in space.

Moreover, the establishment of the United States Space Force, though bearing an amusing name, signifies the nation’s acknowledgment of the importance of space competition in this new era.

It underscores the U.S.’s dedication to maintaining a prominent role in outer space activities.

2. China’s Lunar Prowess

China's Chang'e 4
Credit: Planetary Society

China’s entry into the lunar arena marked a turning point.

In January 2019, China’s Chang’e 4 achieved the remarkable feat of a soft landing on the far side of the Moon, a historic first.

Subsequent attempts by India, Japan, and Russia to land robotic missions on the Moon all ended in failure, highlighting the complexity and challenges of lunar exploration.

China followed up with the Chang’e 5 mission in November 2020, involving an Orbiter, Lander, Rover, and sample return vehicle.

This mission successfully brought back lunar rock samples to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.

This demonstrated China’s capabilities and commitment to lunar exploration.

However, these missions are just the tip of the Chinese lunar iceberg. China has been meticulously planning a three-phase lunar expansion program since 2004.

Currently, in phase one, China is gearing up for Chang’e 6, set to launch within a year, aiming to achieve the first-ever sample return from the Moon’s far side.

Chang’e 7, scheduled for 2026, is the most ambitious lunar mission yet, targeting water ice in permanently shadowed areas of the lunar South Pole.

3. China’s Ambitious Lunar Plans

But it’s phase two that sets China apart. In 2029, China plans to land its first crew of taikonauts (astronauts) on the Moon.

This grandiose move is strategically timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The components required for this mission include a heavy lift rocket (Long March 10), a crew vehicle (NGCS), and a lunar lander.

To put this into perspective, Long March 10, still under development, will be a 90-meter-tall rocket capable of delivering 27 metric tons to lunar orbit.

It’s worth noting that China intends to make the booster cores reusable, employing a unique wire tether system.

The NGCS (Next Generation Crewed Spacecraft) supports a three-person crew and includes a service module for power and propulsion. While it’s still in development, full-scale prototype testing began in 2016.

The lunar lander will enable two astronauts to reach the lunar surface and return to orbit.

A Sensible World VS Global Politics

While landing people on the Moon is a significant achievement, it’s crucial to recognize that it’s not enough. The world should celebrate any lunar landing, but it’s the establishment of a lasting presence that truly matters.

China understands this, and its International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) initiative reflects its long-term vision.

The ILRS, scheduled for construction in the 2030s, will be a fully autonomous robotic installation at the lunar South Pole.

Initially planned as a joint venture between China and Russia, recent geopolitical developments have shifted the focus to include international partners such as Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and members of the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation.

This extensive partnership network demonstrates China’s determination to lead in lunar exploration.

The Challenge for NASA

Meanwhile, NASA’s Artemis program, while impressive in its vision, has faced its share of challenges and uncertainties.

The agency’s ability to deliver on its ambitious goals, including a lunar base, remains uncertain.

Factors such as changing political priorities and the complexities of space exploration have often led to delays and modifications in NASA’s plans.

In contrast, China’s authoritarian model offers a clear advantage when it comes to long-term, large-scale planning and execution.

Their unwavering commitment to lunar exploration and clear strategic vision has put them in a strong position to potentially win this new space race.

Conclusion

The new space race of the 21st century is well underway, with China emerging as a formidable challenger to the United States‘ dominance in space exploration.

Their aggressive plans, commitment to lunar exploration, and visionary lunar base project demonstrate their determination to lead in outer space.

While NASA’s Artemis program holds promise, it faces challenges and uncertainties that could impact its ability to compete effectively.

As we witness this space race unfold, we must prepare for the potential consequences of a power shift in outer space.

Regardless of the outcome, lunar exploration is advancing, and humanity’s presence beyond Earth is becoming increasingly tangible.

It’s a thrilling era for space enthusiasts, and the future promises exciting developments in the cosmos.

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