Not a day goes by in Washington that someone in the national security community doesn’t warn the United States is falling dangerously behind China.
Usually, it’s a reference to the U.S. military’s ability to deter China from seizing Taiwan. But there’s another area where China is racing to get ahead of America: space and, more specifically, the moon and its potential water and mineral resources.
In November, both China and the U.S. experienced giant leaps in the advancement of their space exploration goals.
America, for the first time in 50 years, sent an unmanned space capsule flying toward the moon. It was the first step in NASA’s Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister, which plans to send four astronauts to circle the moon in 2024, followed by a moon landing as soon as 2025.
Meanwhile, the Chinese made history in low Earth orbit, sending three astronauts to join three already aboard its Tiangong space station to complete its construction and conduct China’s first-ever in-orbit crew rotation.
There was a big worry that China would try to militarize space. But that spaceship has sailed, said Todd Harrison, a space expert and the managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights.
“Space has already been militarized. It’s already been weaponized. That’s already happened, so that’s not the concern anymore,” Harrison told the Washington Examiner. “It is a space race, but it’s fundamentally different than with the Soviets back in the ’60s. This space race is not about reaching a destination. It’s about who is going to write the rules of how things operate in space for the future.”
The Pentagon’s just-released report to Congress on China’s military power notes Beijing has “devoted considerable economic and technological resources to growing all aspects of its space program.” And over the past decade, it has doubled its launches per year and the number of satellites it has put into orbit.
“Beijing’s goal is to become a broad-based, fully capable space power. Its rapidly growing space program — second only to the United States in the number of operational satellites,” the report reads.
In an official white paper published in January, China says it supports the peaceful use of space “for the benefit of all humanity,” and many of its achievements do seem consistent with that lofty goal.
China’s robotic lander and Yutu 2 rover were the first to study the far side of the moon. In late 2020, its Chang’e 5 lunar lander returned moon rocks to Earth — the first time it had occurred since the 1970s. And it has succeeded in sending an orbiter, lander, and rover on a mission to Mars.
But in recent years, China has also launched multiple “ASAT” missiles capable of destroying civilian communication and military GPS satellites in orbit. And last year, the country successfully tested a prototype of an advanced nuclear delivery system designed to thwart U.S. missile defenses.
The “fractional orbital bombardment system” uses a rocket to place a highly maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle in low Earth orbit, which then can bombard a ground target from space.
The U.S. has very limited cooperation or coordination with China due to a 2011 law that bars collaboration or data sharing with China’s space program, which is run by its military, and partly as a result, Beijing’s motives are often unclear.
“I think they’re very secretive, nontransparent, and that’s why we have had such a difficult time trying to get along with them,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a September interview with Fox News.
Both the U.S. and China have plans to set up permanent bases on the moon and attempt to mine its resources, a daunting technical challenge.
“We know that there are significant resources. The real question is whether or not they can be economically accessed, and that we just don’t know yet,” says Harrison.
The moon is known to have an abundance of helium-3, which is uncommon on Earth but is highly valued as a potential fuel for future nuclear fusion reactors. The moon also has deposits of various rare earth metals, increasingly critical for use in modern electronics, and which China enjoys a virtual monopoly on Earth.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, of which the U.S. and China are both signatories, bars any nation from claiming sovereignty of any part of the moon. But it’s silent on a host of other questions when it comes to mining the moon’s resources.
“If you go to the moon and you dig up a rock and bring it back to the Earth, does that belong to you? I think the U.S. and other like-minded countries would say, ‘Yes, the material that you mine and you bring back belongs to you, it’s your property,’” Harrison said. “It’s not clear China and Russia are on board with that.”
The biggest lunar prize is believed to be water in the form of ice that can be found only in permanent shade, such as in deep craters or in the moon’s polar regions.
Water can be used not only to provide a source of oxygen and sustain human life, but also to make rocket fuel.
“When you can make your own rocket propellant outside the gravity of Earth, it enables you to go more economically to other places in the solar system,” says Harrison. “So there’s a concern that, what if China gets there and sets up a whole bunch of operations around these important craters, and then says, ‘Oh, guys, hey, if you try to land here, you’re going to mess up our science stations, so you can’t land here.'”
It’s not like China hasn’t employed similar tactics on Earth. For example, its expansive maritime claims to islands and manmade reefs in the South China Sea violate international norms, which the Pentagon cites as an example of the Chinese trying to establish “a new normal” that benefits them.
“Whereas U.S. and international ships and planes have operated in international airspace, or in international waterways for decades, and then suddenly [China is] changing and saying, ‘No, this belongs to us, and now you’re violating our sovereignty,’” said Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, discussing the tension over freedom of navigation operations done by U.S. planes and ships in the waters near China.
“Our concern is, we don’t want the south pole of the moon, where we think the resources are, we don’t want that to become the Spratly Islands,” Nelson told Fox.
There is plenty of time to work things out. A continuously manned moon base is at least a decade or two away.
Nevertheless, it would help to get there first, Harrison said.
“If the United States and the Artemis program get there and set up a lunar base with semi-permanent inhabitants, and we’ve got 15, 20 other nations as part of that operation, then that does a lot to establish de facto norms of how things will operate on the moon,” the space expert said. “And if our coalition decides, for instance, there are no ‘squatter rights’ — that, even though we’re here, others can come too and set up a base right next to us — then that becomes the norm.”