Chinese and Americans are already swarming around the conquest of the Moon when they are not even installed there yet… and it is probably only beginning.
Relations between Beijing and Washington are far from cordial; the two camps regularly address each other through spokespersons and multiply passive-aggressive declarations. Recently, it was the United States which returned to the charge by evoking the Chinese space program; a statement that somewhat angered Xi Jinping’s troops.
This story began in the Bild, a German tabloid that has built an unflattering reputation across the Rhine. The newspaper interviewed Bill Nelson, NASA’s chief administrator, who shared his concerns about the presence of the Chinese contingent on the Moon.
” NOTWe must be very worried about China landing on the moon and saying, ‘it’s ours now, and you stay away’”, affirmed Nelson in reference to the dazzling progress of the Chinese space program. A projection that did not go unnoticed by those concerned, who were happy to respond.
” This is not the first time that the head of NASA ignores the facts and talks about China in an irresponsible way”, explains Zhao Lijhian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “ The United States has built a smear campaign against China’s normal and reasonable space expeditions, which strongly opposes such irresponsible remarks. “, he continues.
A change in the industry that has redistributed the cards
A scuffle by interposed declarations which illustrates well the radical changes which are taking place at the moment in space. NASA is a monolithic institution that has long brought rain and shine to Earth’s neighborhood. But it has lost its luster since the mythical Apollo missions. It obviously continues to play an extremely important role; it is still the hub that coordinates and organizes space exploration in the United States, but also in cooperation with many other institutions.
Except that in practice, its prerogatives have melted like snow in the sun. Since the start of this new space race, NASA has decided to outsource an even greater part of its activities. All his space vehicles are for example built entirely by third parties like SpaceX.
It is a more modern and pragmatic approach which has undoubtedly benefited the American aerospace industry in general ; this new ecosystem makes it possible to envisage missions that are more ambitious than ever, such as the famous Artemis program (see our article).
But it also means that NASA is no longer the sole master on board… unlike China, where the government controls all strategic industries (including aerospace) with an iron fist. The latter therefore has a great deal of autonomy which allows it to make rapid progress on the issues it deems priorities – such as the conquest of the Moon, precisely.
The Moon, a pillar of Chinese ambition
And it is clear that the results are there. The Middle Empire landed its first probe on our satellite in December 2013, and since then it has continued to achieve major successes. We can for example cite its brand new space station, its probe placed on the far side of the Moon or its brand new rockets from the Shian Quxian family.
Successes that the American contingent is watching closely for several reasons. The first of these is that space is a territory that is becoming more strategic than ever. It is no longer just a scientific playground; the challenges of space exploration are now economic, diplomatic and militaryeven if China refutes this last element on paper.
Uncle Sam is now forced to share these territories with a nation that she considers her main rival on these three points. In this context, it is therefore tvery difficult to separate things, since the two countries regularly try to discredit each other (remember that NASA is a government agency).
Xi Jinping has never made a secret of his desire to make China the leading world power at all levels, and space now appears to be an essential criterion for this influence. It is therefore entirely possible that she is looking to occupy the field very aggressively in order to pull the rug out from under Uncle Sam’s feet.
But on the other hand, Nelson’s reflection could also betray a form of insecurity on the part of a once arch-dominant institution that has now lost its absolute hegemony; NASA might just feel threatened not to have a say in Chinese lunar colonization.
A race for infrastructure in the El Dorado of tomorrow
Rather than trying to play referee, it will therefore be very interesting to follow the evolution of the situation with very close attention. Because this point of friction will not go away, quite the contrary. Since the Moon is an integral part of the plans of both countries, everything indicates that it will even weigh more and more heavily in diplomatic relations.
China, for example, intends to deploy a proper moon base in cooperation with Russia, which will further consolidate its position (see our article). NASA, for its part, also plans to set up a base camp there as part of the Artemis program. And this is probably just the start of a long race for space infrastructure between great powers.
Either way, both countries have every interest in watering down their wine. The ISS continues to prove that space can be a formidable platform for international cooperation, the spin-offs of which can benefit all of humanity. And if not, we may well find ourselves with a source of chronic diplomatic friction in a world that already has plenty of it right now. Case to follow!