WHITTINGTON: The Moon Race Between China And America Is Beginning In Earnest

REUTERS/China Daily

Mark Whittington Contributor
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Shortly after Vice President Mike Pence announced that the year of the next moon landing would be brought forward to 2024, the Democratic chair of the House Science Committee, Texas Rep. Bernice Johnson, responded with a degree of skepticism.

“And what is the justification for this crash program? To quote the vice president again, it’s because ‘we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.’ Moreover, according to the vice president, the Chinese have ‘revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground,’ whatever that means. The simple truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the Moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear.”

Beijing is disposed to disagree with the gentlelady from Texas. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration, announced that his country planned to build “a scientific research station” at the south pole of the moon and planned to have Chinese astronauts on the lunar surface “in about ten years.”

China is not attempting to beat the Americans and her allies to the moon. However, Beijing recognizes that the current moon race is more of a marathon than a sprint. If the Americans and their allies are on the moon and China is not, the result would be an irrecoverable loss of face for the Chinese state. The entire raison d’etre for China’s government system is that is represents the future. Success in exploring the moon and accessing its resources represents proof of that principle. That principle applies to the United States as well. Chinese astronauts on the moon and no Americans there would be a foreign policy disaster.

Meanwhile, a couple of recent developments will affect America’s goal of reaching the moon by 2024.

First. NASA has decided not to skip the so-called “green run” test for the Space Launch System, a central part of the lunar return program. The green run involves clamping down the rocket and running all of its engines to see how it would perform during an actual launch. However, given everything involved in that, including transporting and setting up the rocket, the green run would take at least six months to perform. However, the test would verify the performance of the SLS and ensure that it will launch safely.

On the other hand, including the green run ensures that the SLS will not launch in 2020 as planned. In turn this delay puts pressure on the 2024 date for the return to the moon. The decision may cause NASA to look at using commercial rockets such as the Falcon Heavy again, though that approach carries both technical and political risks.

NASA has also requested proposals for crewed lunar lander concepts, consisting of an ascent stage, a descent stage, and a transfer stage. Such a vehicle is going to be needed soon if the space agency means to keep the 2024 target date for the next moon landing.

Perhaps anticipating the need for a lunar lander. Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin sent a cryptic tweet that contained a picture of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance stuck in the polar pack ice with the date May 9, 2019 displayed. Not coincidentally, May 9 is the date when the Satellite 2019 conference is scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. Bezos is due to provide an update on Blue Origin at the conference.

What is Bezos hinting at? Most suggest that he may announce an expedition to the moon’s south pole. If Blue Origin is going to build a lunar lander for its own purposes, NASA could lease it for its lunar exploration mission. At least one problem would then be solved.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner. 

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.