The next Neil Armstrong may be Chinese as race to moon intensifies

Neil Armstrong with the Hasselblad 500EL camera
Fifty years after Neil Armstrong took his one small step, there’s a renewed race to put human beings back on the moon? — and the next one to land there may send greetings back to Earth in Chinese.

China, which didn’t have a space exploration programme when Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, is planning a series of missions to match that achievement. China could have its own astronauts walking on the moon’s surface and working in a research station at its south pole 
sometime in the 2030s.

On the way there, they may stop over at a space station scheduled for assembly starting next year.

Those ambitions trouble President Donald Trump’s administration, which is locked in trade and technology-transfer disputes with China that raise fears of a new Cold War like the one between the US and the Soviet Union that spawned the Apollo programme in the 1960s. With the US-China rivalry extending into the cosmos, Trump wants to create a military branch called the Space Force and accelerate NASA’s timetable for returning to the moon.

“Make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” US Vice President Mike Pence said in March.

Chinese officials are just as emphatic about the importance of the space program to their national identity. A moon shot is intended to open the heavens for more-distant missions as China strives to be a dominant space power by the time the Communist Party celebrates its centennial anniversary of rule in 2049.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next voice from the moon is speaking Mandarin,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor and space-policy expert at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

China already is a galactic pioneer after landing the first probe on the far side of the moon in January. It’s plotting lunar missions to bring back crust samples, and it intends to send a probe to Mars by next year.

When Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the lunar surface, they fulfilled President John F Kennedy’s 1961 call to put an American on the moon by the end of that decade.

Trump wants US boots back there by 2024, shaving four years off the previous timetable and empowering NASA to use contractors such as Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin to make it happen.

The proposed landing at the lunar south pole — the same region China is eyeing for its research station — would be a precursor to a sustained presence by 2028. NASA’s current budget is $21.5 billion, and the Trump administration is seeking another $1.6 billion for the current fiscal year to fund its lunar return, a programme called Artemis. NASA will need billions of dollars more to meet the 2024 deadline.

“We’re building an architecture that enables us to go to the moon to stay for long periods of time with commercial partners and international partners,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a July 2 interview. “It’s my intent to make sure that we remain the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

NASA hasn’t had its own rockets for launching crews into orbit since the space shuttle programme ended in 2011, so it pays Russia more than $80 million a seat for rides to the International Space Station. The rocket that’s supposed to meet Pence’s new timeline — Boeing’s Space Launch System — is struggling with years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns. It won’t be ready for what was a planned June 2020 mission orbiting the moon.

Bridenstine stands behind the SLS, which has strong political support, and said it’s the only vehicle suitable for getting NASA back to the moon.

The agency will consider using commercial companies for a lunar lander and key aspects of the Lunar Gateway orbiting platform, which may help lower the estimated $20 billion-$30 billion price tag for a moon mission, he said in the interview.

Reusable rockets from Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX already are deploying satellites and resupplying the space station, and are contracted to ferry astronauts there.

Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin signed an agreement with NASA to develop commercial lunar-lander systems. Bezos unveiled the Blue Moon lander in May and said he hoped missions could commence by 2024.