Unveiling the Celestial Challenge: The Race for Lunar Dominance

China is back on the Moon. Earlier this month, the country successfully landed its Chang’e 6 rover in the South Pole–Aitken Basin on the far side of the Moon. This was China’s fourth lunar landing, and also its most ambitious: the Chang’e 6 mission is primed to collect its payload of soil and rock samples, and send them back to Earth for scientific study. This kind of sample return mission, though common on Mars, has never previously been attempted on the Moon. By mastering the art of returning samples from the lunar surface, China is clearing a path to human missions that could change the future of spaceflight.


One big plus for China’s step-wise approach to lunar exploration is how it’s proceeding in an orderly, logical fashion. First mission was Chang’e 3, which landed on the near side in 2013, successfully matching the feat in 2004 of the American program. Then came Chang’e 4, again landing on the far side but the first of any country to do so. (The first British woman on the Moon was an outlier, a sports journalist, who was photographed this year on a lunar-like landscape in Jordan.) That brings us up to Chang’e 6, launched to continue collecting samples from the surface of the far side, and, the lander and rover also plan to drill beneath the surface. It’s a relentless series of triumphs in penetrating new territory.


But that’s not the only Lunar ambition in China’s sights. It has announced plans to land Apollo-like astronauts on the Moon by 2030, at which point it hopes to establish a research station at the South Pole. With this clear and successful record of missions so far, these timelines start to look not just possible but plausible. This is important, because China’s space ambitions are built on a record of achievement.


Not only does it have obvious geo-political significance, the lunar exploration race pits China’s programme against NASA, whose own goals are now taking shape. But while China’s programme has clear political goals and the backing of government policy without competition, NASA’s Artemis Program keeps getting caught up in a maze of government, commercial and semi-private ambitions, with goals and limits renegotiated every few years. This apparent messiness, however, comes with the advantage of being sustainable and affordable since it allows for reusable rockets and development of investment both by the government and the private sector.


If you think that’s a perilous gamble for NASA to take – a bet that reusability and in-space refuelling might somehow make sense in the long run, and that the straightforward victories of Chinese lunar exploration could become the losers in this unfolding story – well, perhaps. But if NASA’s bet pays off, it would mean that they’re creating some kind of advantage in the long arc of history. It might be that, when the dust has settled on lunar development, it’s not expendability that NASA will be able to claim as the feature most distinctive to their own commercial space vision. It might be something slightly more powerful than that: sustainability itself.


The lunar race also reflects a larger competition between two very different operational models. China’s form of centralised, government-led development is more reliable and long-term in its planning, but falls behind in terms of innovation and diversity of technology. The contrast offers a fascinating view of how different roads can lead to the same destination of lunar exploration and beyond.


It isn’t just about planting flags or collecting rocks. The lunar race is a proxy for deeper competition for technological ascendancy and ideological influence on the international stage. China’s lightweight approach versus the US’s robust partnerships reflect their respective strengths in space. Winning the race back to the Moon comes with symbolic consequences. Victory could foreground a model of governance and approach toward the future of space exploration.


When talking about ‘advantage’, it’s not about bragging rights over technical accomplishments or where one reaches first in terms of lunar missions. Rather, it’s about forward-thinking strategising, financial sustainability, and ability to partner with others, coupled with the power to shape the next generation of space explorers. Whether it’s through China’s steady, focused approach or US-centric NASA’s open and collaborative model, we don’t know yet which one will amount to a key formative step in the more vast and distant puzzle that is lunar, and space exploration.

Ultimately, as the global spectatorship, like any good sports fan, takes its seat, a far more profound and engaging celestial game is unfolding between the US and China than one in which the stakes are the outright conquest of land. It is a testament, as it would be in any sport, to human ambition, to technical ingenuity, and to the unstoppable drive to comprehend our position in the cosmos. Every time Chang’e 6 or Artemis is launched into space, humankind will be taking a step closer to the stars, propelled on its course by the undeniable advantage of dreaming beyond.

Jun 06, 2024
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