China Has a Head Start in the New Space Race

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China Has a Head Start in the New Space Race

The “Age of Apollo” is over and the Chang-e era has dawned.

China Has a Head Start in the New Space Race

A model of Chinese module of space station is displayed during the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, also known as Airshow China 2018, in Zhuhai city, south China’s Guangdong province.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

On January 3, 2019, when China landed the Chang’e 4 probe on the Lunar South Pole, a first for humanity, the discourse on outer space shifted forever. For nearly 50 years, since July 20, 1969, we have lived in the Age of Apollo, which enabled humanity’s first steps on the moon. When dawn broke out on January 3, 2019, we entered the Age of Chang’e, focused on long-term settlement of the lunar poles.

Like NASA’s Apollo missions, named for the Greek god, China’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) is named after a mythical figure: Chang’e, a Chinese moon goddess. Unlike Apollo, however, China’s Chang’e lunar mission is not a “flags and footprints” enterprise. Instead, like its mythical namesake Chang’e, who made the moon her home, the CLEP is aimed at establishing a permanent presence on the lunar surface by 2036, with an aim to utilize lunar resources like titanium and uranium, as well as iron-ore and water ice for rocket construction and propellant. This in-space manufacturing capability is a vital step to achieve China’s plans for deep space exploitation, to include asteroid mining and build solar power stations in geo-synchronous orbit by 2050.

The current Chang’e 4 mission on the lunar far side has discovered fragments of the moon’s mantle. The Visible and Near Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) on the Chang’e 4’s rover suggest that the rocks contain minerals known as low-calcium (ortho) pyroxene and olivine. A study of such mantle rocks could throw light on the moon’s mineralogical composition as well as on its origins and evolution. Unpacking the geology of the far side of the moon is critical as it differs from the near side, where the Apollo rocks were gathered. It could offer insights on future missions for sustainable human presence.

By the end of this year, China is launching the Chang’e 5 mission to the near side of the moon, to bring back samples to Earth for further investigation. On April 24, 2019, on the occasion of China’s Spaceflight Day, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) head, Zhang Kejian, announced China’s plan to establish a research base on the Lunar South Pole within the next 10 years. China is sending two robotic probes to the poles by 2030, to determine the existence of water-ice and other resources.

Significantly, in reaction to China’s lunar program – which, incidentally, the CNSA announced as far back as 2007 (more than a decade ago) — U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence announced in March 2019 that:

At the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years… To be clear: the first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil… We have the technology to return to the moon and renew American leadership in human space exploration… We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher. Last December [sic], 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 pre-eminent spacefaring nation…

Rapidly, mining for lunar resources has become an uppermost priority for the United States as well. The NASA Swamp Works in Florida is prototyping robots like the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot that can extract, mold, and analyze lunar soil for resources. NASA is planning on establishing a moon base by 2028, under a program called Artemis, named after a Greek goddess and the twin sister of Apollo.

Seizing on the five-year timeline set by Pence to get Americans back to the moon, Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO and founder of Blue Origin, revealed his company’s robotic lunar lander, Blue Moon, in a major speech on May 9. Bezos, taking his cues from Pence’s speech stated, “We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago…It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn Rocket, scheduled for launch in 2021, and the New Shepard Capsule and Rocket Booster system, powered by liquid hydrogen. Bezos has long-term plans of moving all Earth-based heavy industry to space.

Very similar to China’s long-term space ambitions of lunar settlement and space industrialization, Bezos’ May 9 speech highlighted the need for a specific long-term vision of human settlement and industrialization in space. Both Bezos and China seem to be propelled by similar concerns. For China, depending on Earth-based nonrenewable resources to fuel the Chinese economy is not wise; therefore, developing capacity for accessing the vast resources of space is a way forward. Similarly, Bezos firmly believes that humanity must become space faring and develop the capacity to live in space since Earth’s resources are finite. Bezos intends to use the Blue Moon lander to start mining the moon for its natural resources, like water-ice. “Ultimately, we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon, and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon,” he said.

More than 17 years ago, in 2002, Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of China’s lunar exploration program, stated that, “The moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy and resources for human beings… This is crucial to sustainable development of human beings on Earth… Whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first.” Five years later, in 2007, China’s moon goddess-inspired lunar mission, the Chang’e 1 was launched.

The Great Race for Lunar Resources

Significantly, other countries and private companies are racing to the moon for its resources as well. India aims to launch the Chandrayaan 2 between July 5 and 16, 2019, with a scheduled landing around September 6, 2019, close to the Lunar South Pole. According to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), “the payloads will collect scientific information on lunar topography, mineralogy, elemental abundance, lunar exosphere and signatures of hydrogel and water-ice.”

ROSMOCOS, the Russian space agency, in a meeting in November 2018 announced Russian plans to establish a lunar colony by 2040. Alexander Sergeyev, the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, highlighted the critical significance of the moon, especially from a lunar poles’ resources perspective. “Moon exploration issues are now heading the agenda of our Space Council…There are many different opinions that are the driving force — projects that can rally society and the scientific community, or is it something scientifically disruptive. The moon can be a very important object.” Critically, both Russia and China view the development of their lunar presence capabilities from a national interest perspective.

Japan and South Korea have both announced programs to land on the lunar poles. Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission aims to land near one of the lunar poles by 2020. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is planning a resource prospector as well by 2020. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) is developing its pathfinder lunar orbiter, viewing its potential success as establishing South Korea as a major space power. The European Space Agency (ESA) aims to establish a Moon Village, which would be open to resource exploitation as well as “scientific and technological activities” and tourism.

In the meantime, Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa bought all seats on a Space X spaceflight, utilizing the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), for his Dear Moon project headed for the Moon in 2023. Elon Musk, founder of Space X has offered his own vision of outer space colonization: build Mars Base Alpha by 2028, and by 2030 a city that could support up to 1 million people. We nearly experienced the first private company landing on the moon this year, when Israeli nonprofit SpaceIL’s Beresheet lander failed just minutes before landing on the lunar surface. The Israeli Space Agency (ISA) is now getting involved with the Beresheet 2, with an injunction of $5.6 million.

The competition between countries to get to the lunar poles is on, in the aftermath of the Chang’e 4 landing on the far side. There is, however, a clear difference between China’s ambitions and those of others. While countries like the United States, India, Japan, South Korea are aiming for lunar pole landings for space science and exploration purposes, China is the only country to articulate a long-term vision of space settlement and utilization. It is the only country to have invested serious money ($30 million) in future space technologies like space-based solar power that will help power such a lunar base.

No other country has been able to match the long-term space goals of China as of yet. These goals include establishing permanent presence on the lunar surface, space mining, developing solar power stations in geo-synchronous orbit, and accelerating the modernization of military space institutions. While private entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk have publicly articulated similar long-term space settlement goals, there is no longstanding U.S. government space policy that offer similar far-reaching visions. For the most part, U.S. space experts are in denial of China’s space success or tend to be dismissive of how the discourse on outer space is changing: moving from either “showing off” space technology to impress people on Earth (the hallmark of the Apollo era) or simply developing counterspace weapons for military advantage, to actually viewing space in its own right, with resources to extract (Chang’e era).

China’s 30-year space goals (2019-2049), propelled by President Xi Jinping’s China Dream and operationalized within his civil-military integration strategy, put Beijing clearly in the lead with regard to space-renewable energy generation, industrialization, and resource utilization. With the Chang’e 4 already up there exploring and investigating on the lunar far side, and with another mission to follow this year, China is the only country with a demonstrated capability to get to the lunar far side. Only time will tell if others can follow suit, and establish an enduring, sustainable lunar presence.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is a senior analyst and author. Her work on “Outer Space and Great Powers” was supported by the MINERVA Initiative Grant for Social Science Research. Currently, she is working on a book on “Great Powers and Resource Nationalism in Space” to be published by Lexington Press, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield.  All views expressed here are her own.