China and NASA are rushing to the moon, each vying for the first human moon landing since 1972. Two recent launches show NASA may have the advantage, but there is no clear winner yet.
NASA just launched its new lunar rocket for the first time on November 15, carrying the Orion spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts on future lunar missions. Now Orion is circling the moon, unmanned, in a test flight to make sure it can safely pick up human passengers next time.
China, meanwhile, on Tuesday launched a new crew of taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) to its new space station. The rocket roared into the skies of the Gobi Desert, past a quarter moon looming low on the horizon.
China has been building the Tiangong station over the past year and a half and just completed it in October. This launch establishes the beginning of regular rotations of taikonauts equipping the orbital laboratory.
While NASA is testing its lunar hardware in lunar orbit, China is firmly stuck in Earth orbit. Chinese officials say their space station is a crucial step to the moon, and they are developing the hardware for a lunar landing. With the limited information China has shared about its lunar program, it’s hard to gauge just how behind NASA it is.
NASA chief sees China as an ‘aggressive competitor’ for the moon
On paper, NASA aims to land its astronauts at the moon’s south pole by 2025, but many experts and the agency’s inspector general say the timeline is unrealistic.
China could land its own people on the moon by 2030, Ye Peijian, a Chinese lunar program designer and engineer, told state broadcaster CCTV in November 2021, according to Andrew Jones, the leading English-language journalist covering the Chinese space programs.
The secrecy of China’s lunar program makes it difficult for outside analysts to gauge that timeline, but the NASA chief expressed 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 during a briefing. press in November 2021.
“It’s the position of NASA and, I believe, the United States 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 pointed to China’s ambitions in space as a cause for concern and a reason to increase funding for NASA.
“The Chinese space program is increasingly capable of landing Chinese taikonauts much earlier than originally planned, but whatever,” Nelson said, adding, “We’re going to be as aggressive as we can in a safe and technically feasible to beat our competitors with boots on the moon.”
Building bases on the moon is the basis for the greatest space race: Mars
China and NASA have identified some of the same target landing sites at the lunar south pole, Jones reported.
The two have long-term plans to build permanent stations on the lunar surface, and they’re forming 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. It will be an essential resource for space programs planning to send astronauts from the moon to Mars – as NASA plans – because they can break down water into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel.
Mars is the tightest space race, according to former NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro.
“If the goal is to land on the moon and come back, clearly the United States is going to beat China. There’s no question about that,” Loverro told CNN. “But if the target lands the first humans on Mars, the answer is much less certain.”
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