If the plans of China and Russia become reality, there will soon be a base on the southern pole of the moon. The two countries have signed a document declaring their willingness to cooperate with their lunar plans.
The contours of a new space race are beginning to be drawn out, because the US and Europe also want to return to the moon. But that space race will look different than in the 1960s, expects British space journalist Andrew Jones.
In August last year, China announced its search for partners for ILRS, the International Lunar Research Station. What that‘s gonna look like is not clear yet. Russia and China will at least draw up a roadmap for the lunar base together. The two countries agreed earlier to help each other in two unmanned lunar flights.
Other international partners are also allowed to participate, emphasising Moscow and Beijing. But do they want to? The US, Europe, Japan and Canada have their own lunar program, and so a space race between those two blocks seems to be imminent.
British journalist Andrew Jones closely follows Chinese space travel. According to him, the word space race is not really appropriate, because the comparison with the 60s of the last century is not valid. There’s no deadline and no clear target like then. In 1969, Russia and the US necessarily wanted to be the first to have a man on the moon before 1970.
At the same time, there are also paralels, because the geopolitical tension between China and the US is increasing, and this, as during the Cold War, is accompanied by a clash of prestige in space.
“There‘s not really a race,” says Jones. “It can develop into a competitive struggle. What you see now is that there is a schism, the international partnerships are being redistributed a little.”
China has made significant progress in recent years with ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars and a new space station, the first parts of which will be launched this year. That space station, though smaller, is similar to the ISS, where China is not welcome because of American concerns about national security. China is also developing a heavy rocket that can bring a manned spacecraft to the moon. A prototype of that lunar ship was tested in orbit last year.
The plans are a lot like the American lunar program. NASA wants to build a small space station around the moon, the Gateway, and from there manned lunar landings. There are also ideas for a moon base, the Moon Village.
Initially, Russia would also contribute to the American lunar project. ESA, in turn, has indicated that it is also looking at the Chinese plans to see where their programs can complement each other. “It will be interesting to see how that goes on,” says Jones. “Will NASA say at some point: you are for us or against us?”
The American Space Agency is in the starting blocks for its manned lunar program. In November, the first unmanned lunar flight with the new Orion capsule is planned. China is not ready yet, but certainly wants to send people to the moon, expects Jones. “That’s what they want. It does not mean that it happens quickly, because space missions are by definition a challenge and something goes wrong occasionally. But China has a well-thought-out plan that gets enough support from the Communist Party.”
Astronomer Marc Klein Wolt of Radboud University, who knows Chinese space travel well, understands the cooperation with Russia. “Russia itself does not have the money for an ambitious manned lunar program, but has a lot of experience and knowledge. China makes smart use of that.”
The fact that the US does not want to cooperate with China in space has to do with the fear of technology theft, according to Klein Wolt. But that fear should not outweigh the benefits of scientific cooperation, he believes. “That is why I am pleased that ESA is acting autonomously. Europe could act as a bridge between China and the US. A lunar base costs a lot of money. If these countries really want to do that, it will probably not work without working together.”