China and NASA are racing for the moon, each vying for the first manned moon landing since 1972. Two recent launches show NASA may have an edge, but there’s still no clear winner.
NASA just launched its new lunar rocket for the first time on Nov. 15, carrying the Orion spacecraft, designed to ferry astronauts on future lunar missions. Now Orion is circling the moon, unmanned, on a test flight to make sure it can safely carry human passengers next time.
China, meanwhile, launched a new crew of taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) to its new space station on Tuesday. The rocket rumbled across the Gobi Desert skies, passing a quarter full moon looming low on the horizon.
China has been building Tiangong station for the past year and a half and just completed it in October. This launch marks the beginning of regular rotations of taikonauts working in the orbiting laboratory.
While NASA is testing its lunar hardware in lunar orbit, China is firmly locked in Earth orbit. Chinese officials say their space station is a crucial step to the moon and are developing hardware for a moon landing. With the limited information China has shared about its lunar program, it’s hard to gauge how close it is to NASA.
NASA chief sees China as an “aggressive competitor” for the moon
On paper, NASA aims to land its astronauts on the moon’s south pole by 2025, but many experts and the agency’s inspector general say that timeline isn’t realistic.
China could land its own people on the moon by 2030, China’s lunar program designer and engineer Ye Peijian told state broadcaster CCTV in November 2021, according to Andrew Jones, the lead English-language reporter covering space programs Chinese.
The secrecy of China’s lunar program makes it difficult for outside analysts to gauge that timing, but the NASA chief expressed his feeling the race is tight.
“We have every reason to believe that we have a competitor, a very aggressive competitor, in the Chinese returning to the moon with taikonauts,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at a news conference in November 2021.
“It’s the position of NASA and, I believe, the US government that we want to be there first, back on the moon after more than half a century,” he added.
Nelson, other members of Congress and former NASA administrators have previously singled out China’s space ambitions as a cause for concern and a reason to increase NASA funding.
“The Chinese space program is increasingly capable of landing Chinese taikonauts much sooner than originally anticipated, but whatever,” Nelson said, adding, “We will be as aggressive as possible in a safe and technically feasible way to beat the our competitors with boots on the moon.”
Building bases on the moon is the foundation for the greatest space race: Mars
China and NASA have identified some of the same landing sites on the lunar south pole, Jones said.
Both have long-term plans to build permanent stations on the lunar surface and are building coalitions to work with other nations there, but not each other.
The moon’s south pole could become particularly valuable real estate, as it appears to hold much of the moon’s water. This will be a key resource for space programs that plan to send astronauts from the moon to Mars – as NASA envisions – as they can break down water into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.
Mars is the tightest space race, according to Doug Loverro, a former NASA associate administrator.
“If the goal is to land on the moon and back, it is clear that the United States will beat China. There is no doubt about it,” Loverro told CNN. “But if the goal is to land the first humans on Mars , the answer is much less certain.”
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