The moon has always been a source of fascination and exploration for humanity. But in recent years, the lunar landscape has become a battleground for a new space race between the world’s superpowers. While Russia dominated the first space race in the 20th century, it has now fallen behind in the 21st century. Its latest lunar probe, Luna-25, crashed on the moon’s surface on August 19, 20231, ending its hopes of landing on the moon’s south pole. Meanwhile, China and the U.S. are competing to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface and exploit its resources.
China’s Ambitious Lunar Plans
China has invested billions of dollars in its military-run space program in a push to catch up with the U.S. and Russia. It was the third country to place humans in orbit in 2003 and has since launched several successful missions to the moon and Mars2. Its Tiangong space station is the crown jewel of its space program, which aims to host international astronauts and conduct scientific experiments2.
China is also pursuing plans to send a crewed mission to the moon by 2030 and build a base there2. It has already achieved several milestones in lunar exploration, such as landing an unmanned probe on the far side of the moon in 20193 and collecting lunar samples with its Chang’e-5 mission in 20204. Its next mission, Chang’e-6, is scheduled to launch in 2024 and will attempt to land on the south pole of the moon5, where scientists believe there could be water ice and other valuable resources.
China’s lunar ambitions are driven by both scientific curiosity and strategic interests. The moon could offer a significant piece of real estate that acts as a base for further exploration to other planets, such as Mars. The moon could also provide access to rare-earth metals that are vital for high-tech industries back on Earth6. Moreover, China sees its space program as a way to showcase its technological prowess and enhance its global influence.
U.S. Rekindles Its Lunar Passion
The U.S. was the first and only country to send humans to the moon, with 12 astronauts walking on its surface between 1969 and 19727. However, after the end of the Apollo program, the U.S. shifted its focus to low-Earth orbit activities, such as building and operating the International Space Station (ISS). The U.S. also faced budget constraints and political challenges that hampered its space ambitions.
However, in recent years, the U.S. has renewed its interest in returning to the moon, partly in response to China’s growing presence in space. The Trump administration launched the Artemis program in 2017, which aimed to send American astronauts to the moon by 20248. The Biden administration has continued to support Artemis, but has extended some of its deadlines due to technical and financial difficulties9. The U.S. plans to use SpaceX’s Starship rocket to send astronauts to the moon’s surface, possibly in the second half of this decade9.
The U.S. hopes that Artemis will not only reassert its leadership in space exploration, but also foster international cooperation and commercial innovation. The U.S. has invited several countries, including Japan, Australia, Canada, and some European nations, to join Artemis as partners. The U.S. has also encouraged private companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing, to develop new technologies and services for lunar missions. The U.S. envisions creating a sustainable lunar outpost that will serve as a gateway for future missions to Mars and beyond.
The Future of Lunar Exploration
The new moon race is not only a competition between China and the U.S., but also an opportunity for collaboration and discovery. Other countries, such as India, Japan, and Europe, are also planning their own lunar missions in the coming years. India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission is expected to launch in 2024 and attempt a soft landing on the moon’s south pole. Japan’s Moon Sniper mission is scheduled to launch later this year and test a new technology for removing space debris from orbit. Europe’s Luna mission is slated to launch in 2025 and study the lunar environment and geology.
The moon offers a unique platform for scientific research and exploration, as well as a potential source of economic and strategic benefits. However, it also poses significant challenges and risks, such as harsh environmental conditions, technical difficulties, legal uncertainties, and geopolitical tensions. The new moon race will require not only technological innovation and financial investment, but also international cooperation and regulation. The future of lunar exploration will depend on how the world’s space powers manage their rivalry and partnership on the final frontier.