WASHINGTON – Not only is rocket fuel the driving force behind America’s first missile launch after a half-century of lull. Rivalry with China’s burgeoning space program helps propel NASA’s efforts to return to space in a larger way, as the two nations push to return people to the moon and establish the first lunar bases.
US intelligence, military, and political leaders make it clear that they see a host of US strategic challenges in China’s space program, echoing the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union that prompted the 1960s race to the moon. This is because China is rapidly matching the civil and military achievements of the United States in the space field and making new ones of its own.
On the military side, the United States and China accuse each other of weaponizing space. Senior US defense officials warn that China and Russia are building capabilities to crack down on the satellite systems that support US intelligence, military communications, and early warning networks.
There is also a civilian aspect to the space race. The United States is concerned that China will take the lead in space exploration and commercial exploitation, pioneering technological and scientific advances that would put China ahead in space and prestige on Earth.
“In a decade, the United States has gone from being an undisputed leader in space to just one of two peers in competition,” Senator Jim Inhoff, Republican of Oklahoma, declared this week at a Senate Armed Services hearing. “Everything our military does is based on space.”
At another hearing last year, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson waved an image carried by a Chinese rover that had just fallen on the surface of Mars. He said, “The Chinese government… will put humans on the moon” soon. “That should tell us something about our need to get rid of Daphna.”
NASA, the US civilian space agency, is waiting for a new launch date this month or October for its unmanned Artemis 1 test launch. Technical issues have called off my first two launch attempts in recent weeks.
Likewise, China aims to send astronauts to the moon this decade, as well as establish a robotic research station there. Both the United States and China intend to establish intermittent crew bases on the Moon’s south pole next.
Russia has joined the Chinese lunar program, while 21 countries have joined the efforts initiated by the United States with the goal of providing guidelines and order for civil space exploration and development.
The parallel efforts come 50 years after American astronauts closed the doors of the Apollo spacecraft away from the moon, in December 1972.
Some space policy experts are backing off talk of a new space race, seeing significant differences from John F. Kennedy to defeat Sputnik in the Soviet Union and be the first to take people to the moon. This time, both the United States and China view the lunar programs as a stepping stone in phased programs toward the exploration, stabilization and exploitation of resources and other untapped economic and strategic opportunities offered by the Moon, Mars, and space in general.
Besides the gains in technology, science, and jobs that come with space programs, Artemis promoters point to the possibility of mining minerals and frozen water on the Moon, or using the Moon as a base for asteroid exploration — the Trump administration has particularly emphasized the prospects for mining. There is potential in tourism and other commercial efforts.
And for space more broadly, Americans alone own tens of thousands of satellites in what the Space Force says is a half-trillion dollar global space economy. Satellites direct GPS, process credit card purchases, help keep TV, radio and cell phone broadcasts going, and forecast the weather. They ensure the ability of the military and intelligence community to track perceived threats.
And in a world where China and Russia are cooperating to try to outpace the United States in space, and where some point to the private space efforts led by American billionaires as rendering costly NASA rocket launches unnecessary, the United States will regret letting go of the glory and strategic advantages of the development of the moon and space, supporters of Artemis say. Just for the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Tesla magnate Elon Musk.
The Moon programs suggest that “space will be an arena of competition on the prestige front, demonstrating advanced technical expertise and knowledge, and then also on the military front as well,” said Aaron Pittman, professor of history and international. Affairs at George Washington University and a member of the Space Policy Institute.
“People who support Artemis and people who see it as an instrument of competition want the United States to be on the table in shaping the future of exploration for other celestial bodies,” Pittman said.
There is no shortage of these warnings as Artemis moves toward boot. The US intelligence community warned this year in its annual threat assessment: “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military and economic benefits and prestige that Washington has gained from space command.”
A study group commissioned by the Pentagon claimed last month that “China appears to be on track to overtake the United States as the dominant space power by 2045”. He called this part of a Chinese plan to strengthen authoritarianism and communism here on Earth.
That sparked occasional heated words between Chinese and US officials.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in July that China’s space program is guided by the principles of peace. “Some US officials constantly distort China’s normal and reasonable commitments on outer space,” Zhao said.
Artemis 1 flies on the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and aims for a five-week test flight that will put test dummies in lunar orbit.
If all goes well with that, American astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land on it in 2025, culminating in a program that will cost $93 billion over more than a decade of work.
NASA plans to have a woman and a person of color on the first American crew ever to touch foot on the moon again.
The space agency says the lessons learned from returning to the moon will help in the next step in manned flights to Mars.
Meanwhile, China’s ambitious space program lags behind that of the United States. But its secret military-linked program is rapidly evolving and creating distinctive missions that could put Beijing at the forefront of spaceflight.
Already, China has this rover on Mars, and it joins an American rover that already exists. China made its first landing on the far side of the moon.
Chinese astronauts are now flying overhead, putting the finishing touches to a permanent orbiting space station.
The 1967 United Nations Space Treaty aims to begin creating protective barriers to space exploration, and prohibits anyone from claiming sovereignty over a celestial body, or establishing a military base on it, or placing weapons of mass destruction in space.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence or a coincidence that in this period that people claim is a renewed competition between great powers, the United States is really investing resources to get back,” said Pittman, the researcher. on space and national security. “Time will tell if this turns into a sustainable programme.”
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Does competing with the Chinese “ensure greater sustainable interest in our space program? Certainly,” Koons said. But I don’t think this is necessarily a competition that leads to conflict.
“I think it could be a competition – like the Olympics – and it simply means that every team and every side will rise higher and faster. As a result, humanity is likely to benefit.
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