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Moonshots: U.S. and China fire up new era of cosmic competition

  • January 18, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 6:01 a.m.
  • English Press

JAMES HAND-CUKIERMAN and MITSURU OBE, Nikkei staff writers


This is the first in a series of Nikkei Asia articles on the players, possibilities and problems of the new era in space.


TOKYO — If Xi Jinping, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin were sent into space, would it change the world?


Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa says he contemplated this question while gazing at Earth during his recent 12-day visit to the International Space Station. “If you see it with your own eyes, not just photos, it’s 100 times more beautiful,” he told reporters. If powerful politicians could gather up there, “that might make Earth a better place to live.”


His vision of a summit among the stars is likely to remain just that. But world leaders do have their eyes on the heavens — and, in particular, the moon. Like Maezawa, whose next rocket ticket will take him into lunar orbit, they’re looking to the attractions of our only permanent natural satellite.


The U.S., China, Russia, India, Japan and South Korea are all planning lunar missions in 2022 and beyond. These moonshots lay bare a growing cosmic competition for resources, technological superiority and national glory, with the potential to amplify rising international political tensions on Earth. The missions also require huge investments that look even more onerous as COVID-19 exacts its economic toll.


The defining rivalry, as on Earth, looks to be between Washington and Beijing.


Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst and outer space specialist at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), stressed the U.S. and China “are not yet in a space race” on current timetables. But he suggested that could change if America’s plans slip further behind schedule and China accelerates its own, seeing “a window of opportunity to steal the U.S. thunder.”

“There would be huge prestige for China if it beats the U.S. back to the moon,” Davis said, referring to Washington’s success in planting its flag on the lunar surface back in 1969.


For now, the U.S. remains ahead. NASA’s Artemis program is set for its maiden liftoff this year, with a giant Space Launch System rocket due to hoist an uncrewed Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit.


This will pave the way for a second Artemis mission, which will send astronauts on a lunar flyby. Then comes Artemis III, a milestone for both exploration and government collaboration with “space billionaires.” The mission is scheduled to link with Elon Musk’s reusable SpaceX Starship, which is also due for its initial orbital flight this year. If all goes to plan, Artemis III would put the first human bootprints on lunar soil since 1972.


However, Artemis III has already been delayed from 2024 to at least 2025. A NASA audit published in November warned the landing could be “several years” late due to “technical difficulties and delays heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.” It estimated program costs at $93 billion through the fiscal year 2025, up from an earlier projection of $86 billion.


This illustration shows the SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first Artemis program astronauts to the surface of the moon.    © SpaceX/NASA

Davis warned that domestic political divisions in the U.S. could also make it more difficult to maintain a coherent strategy. And if a future administration in Washington decides to deprioritize ventures beyond the stratosphere, China and Russia “could become the dominant space actors — they write the rules to suit themselves,” he said.


Right now, China appears focused on completing its Tiangong space station in low Earth orbit this year. It then plans to turn to crewed lunar voyages in the 2030s.


Beijing has three crew-less lunar journeys planned this decade, including the Chang’e 8 in 2027. The mission, according to the state-run Global Times, will “construct a primary form” for an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) to be established with Russia by 2035.


“China is obviously thinking about how to send astronauts to the lunar surface before the U.S. does,” said Junya Terazono, a planetary science expert who runs a Japanese lunar information website. “Behind such efforts is the country’s goal of becoming No. 1 in technology under the Made in China 2025 vision.” That vision is Beijing’s plan to upgrade manufacturing and achieve self-sufficiency in strategic sectors like robotics and aerospace equipment.


China already has one lunar “first”: It put a lander on the far side of the moon in 2019. The Yutu-2 rover caused a stir late last year when it spotted what a Chinese website described as a “mystery hut” on the horizon. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a rock said to loosely resemble a rabbit.


Notwithstanding that case of celestial confusion, there is certainly more to the moon than boulders and craters.


“There are a number of reasons to go back to the moon now,” ASPI’s Davis said.


China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 rolls onto the far side of the moon in this image from the Chang’e 4 probe taken on Jan. 4, 2019.   © China National Space Administration/CNS via Reuters

The discovery of potentially large amounts of water ice could help sustain human activities on and around the moon, Davis said. Water can also be broken down through electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen, which when combined, could be used as rocket fuel for missions to Mars and other inner solar system targets, he added.


Astronauts could prepare for the rigors of the six- to nine-month journey to the red planet with extended lunar stays. And the moon’s lower gravitational pull, compared with Earth’s, makes it an easier launch point for spacecraft “to go elsewhere, be it rendezvous with near-Earth asteroids that may be resource-rich, or to do crewed orbital missions around Venus,” Davis noted.


He said another lure is the presence of helium-3, an isotope needed for nuclear fusion power. Decades-old interest in fusion has grown worldwide as its advocates say it is a potentially safer, more sustainable and limitless form of atomic energy.


Solar power facilities on the moon, meanwhile, could complement renewables on Earth.


Sun Kwok, an astronomer and professor emeritus at the University of Hong Kong, said mining and other commercial activities were unlikely to be viable in the near term. Still, he said, “it is within our current technical capabilities to establish permanent stations on the moon with unique capabilities to observe the universe” and study the history of the solar system.


On China, he said the country is positioned to succeed thanks to “national will and determination” plus an expanding pool of trained talent. At the same time, he emphasized cooperation and drew a distinction between crewed and uncrewed missions.


“As scientists, we don’t see developments in unmanned science missions as ‘races’ or ‘competitions,’ but opportunities for international collaboration,” he said. “Manned programs will always have political overtones but they have less scientific impact.”


With or without humans, all sides have expressed a willingness to work with international partners.


A Chinese report detailing the International Lunar Research Station with Russia says “any country or organization is welcome to cooperate.”


There is talk of European involvement in the ILRS. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is teaming up with NASA, Japan and Canada to build Gateway — a small station in lunar orbit that would serve as an outpost for moon missions “as well as a staging point for deep space exploration.” Continental ambitions are expected to crystallize further at a special space summit in France next month, which the European Space Policy Institute said is a step toward a shared vision and “whole-of-Europe approach.”


Over a dozen countries have signed the U.S.-led Artemis Accords, committing to principles like transparency and respect for existing treaties on the use of space. The agreement remains open to additional partners.


Yet battle lines are being drawn in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.


Moscow declined to join the Artemis Accords and branded them “U.S.-centric,” even though it cooperates with Washington on the International Space Station. Russia has threatened to halt that, too: State media reported that Dmitry Rogozin, head of the space agency Roscosmos, told parliament last June that if certain U.S. sanctions were not lifted, Russia’s withdrawal from the space station would be “a problem for American partners.”


Sino-American cooperation seems completely out of the question. A 2011 legal amendment requires congressional and FBI approval for any U.S. government-funded space projects with China.


The International Space Station transits the moon’s southern hemisphere in 2017: Scientists believe there is ice in permanently shadowed craters at the south pole.    © NASA

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) — a loose security alliance involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia — last year expanded its purview to space. It is focused on sharing satellite data, consulting on principles and rules for operating in space, and other subjects. China routinely slams the Quad as a relic of Cold War thinking.


All three of Washington’s Quad allies are stepping up their own moon or space initiatives, sometimes with one another.


Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Dec. 28 announced Japan intends to put the first non-American on the moon via the Artemis program in the late 2020s.


“Space is a frontier that creates dreams and hopes in the minds of people,” Kishida said. “It is also an important infrastructure for the nation’s economic security.”


Terazono, the planetary scientist, interprets Kishida’s words as a message that “Japan’s economy and national security could be put in jeopardy if China dominates in technology.”


Japan is also eyeing a mission with India, possibly in 2024, to the lunar south pole, where scientists believe permanently shadowed craters hold ice. India’s ambassador to Japan, Sanjay Kumar Verma, hailed a “strategic alliance” between countries with a “convergence of ideas and objectives — free navigation in the South China Sea and other waters, rule of law, democracy.”


Countries with a fraction of the space budgets of India and Japan, let alone the U.S. and China, are also keen to carve out niches.


One is South Korea, an Artemis Accords signatory. It is set to launch its first lunar orbiter, Pathfinder, on a SpaceX rocket this August. Sim Chae-kyung, a senior researcher at the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, said this will be the “start of the Korean space exploration program, and it will not be a one-hit wonder.”


She is on a team developing a camera for the orbiter, which should shed new light on how the lunar surface changes physically and chemically over time. “We’re not just mimicking what others did before,” she said.


Sim hailed the moon as a “land of great opportunities” and said she was confident there was a place for players with “smaller, cheaper, faster programs.”


She added that it was important to keep the peace — and quoted an observation by the author Kurt Vonnegut: “The universe is an awfully big place … There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.”


If cosmic conflicts do arise, there are few obvious means to resolve them.


The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, joined by all of today’s key players, states that “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.”


A similar regime governs Antarctica. Yet this has not stopped some countries from making territorial claims.


Terazono suggested major spacefaring nations might try to set up bases to control lunar areas where there are water reserves, or convenient spacecraft landing sites.


Militarization is another concern, again despite international treaties limiting such activity. “The growing risk of tensions between major powers is fueling the risk that space may become weaponized, as some states — China, Russia and India — test and deploy counterspace [or] antisatellite capabilities, with the U.S. having a latent antisatellite capability as well,” Davis said.


Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, wearing a “World Peace” badge, prepares for his launch to the International Space Station at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Dec. 8, 2021.   © Reuters

Dreamers like the Japanese magnate Maezawa prefer to highlight the potential for celestial cooperation over confrontation. The entrepreneur, who stuck a “World Peace” badge on his flight suit, plans to bring a crew of artists along for his lunar mission, planned with SpaceX for 2023.


“I choose to go to the moon,” he said when he announced the plan, channeling U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s impassioned speech about the Apollo lunar missions. But on his return from the International Space Station, Maezawa struck a more humble note — one that will resonate with those who want peace in the heavens and below.


“I want to continue to live on this planet,” he recalled thinking as he stared at Earth from the space station. “I want to value this planet.”

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