US shoots for the moon in new space race, only this time the opposition is different

America Letter: United States and China eye resources on the lunar southern polar region

The Artemis unmanned lunar rocket sits on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre. Any base on or around the moon could act as a staging post for missions to Mars or elsewhere. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

There has been a lot written in recent days about when and how the United States is planning to return to the moon.

Less attention has been given to why after 50 years of its space programme being largely confined to low earth orbit, the United States is putting significant energy and resources into plans for its astronauts not only to return to the lunar surface but to stay there for extended periods.

The US space agency Nasa also wants to learn from its new experiences on the moon and to develop technologies to facilitate human exploration of the planet Mars, now scheduled for the late 2030s.

The answer, in part, would seem to be an old-fashioned space race, this time with China rather than with the former Soviet Union as was the case of the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s.


Nasa is scheduled to try again this weekend to launch its powerful new rocket, known as the space launch system (SLS), which will propel its Orion spacecraft on a 42-day mission to lunar orbit. On this occasion there will be no crew. An engine problem caused the postponement of the original launch plan last Monday.

All going well in 2024, Nasa will send astronauts on a similar mission before landing humans on the moon in 2025 for the first time in more than 50 years.

None of this will be cheap. The return to the moon using the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft form part of an overall programme known as Artemis. Each Artemis mission is expected to cost in excess of $4 billion.

Nasa wants its astronauts to explore the moon’s south pole — a region believed to have significant quantities of water ice. This is an important resource which in future could be broken down into its component parts, providing oxygen and hydrogen which could be used as fuel.

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If Nasa could find such resources on the moon, then it would reduce the need to carry them from the earth. And a crucial part of any space mission is the weight of materials to be carried.

Any base on or around the moon could, in such circumstances, act as a staging post for onward missions to Mars or elsewhere.

The lunar south pole is therefore a region of considerable importance from a strategic and resource perspective and Nasa wants to be there first.

The administrator of Nasa, Bill Nelson, clearly told US broadcaster NBC in recent days that he believed the United States was in a new space race.

“We want to get to the south pole of the moon where the resources are. Where we think water is.”

“If there is a water, there is rocket fuel and we do not want China suddenly getting there and saying this is our exclusive territory. That is what they did with the Spratly Islands [in the South China Sea].”

The moon, Mr Nelson contended, could also be a significant source of a key material for future energy generation.

“When we can ever develop nuclear fusion, and it works, then we can harvest helium-3 which is on the surface of the moon and bring it back.”

Helium-3 is a light, stable isotope of helium and has the potential to be used as a fuel in nuclear fusion power plants. There is little helium-3 available on the Earth. However, there are thought to be significant supplies on the moon

Mr Nelson said the helium-3 could lead to the first industrialisation of the moon.

The Nasa chief also hit out at China over allegedly being “secretive” about its space activities while suggesting that its advances were based on technology stolen from other countries.

China’s Global Times hit back this week and dismissed Mr Nelson’s comments as “inflammatory” and “full of smears”.

However, only last week a significant report drawn up by defence and industrial experts in the United States also warned about China’s ambitions in space, and said it wanted in the years ahead to mine asteroids, industrialise the moon and build solar power stations.

The State of the Space Industrial Base 2022 report, released by the defence Innovation Unit, the US Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory, said: “China continues to compete toward a strategic goal of displacing the US as the dominant global space power economically, diplomatically and militarily by 2045, if not earlier. Proactive measures are required to sustain our nation’s space leadership across all instruments of national power despite China’s attempt to accelerate closing its technology gap with the US.”

Five decades after the United States won the race to the moon, competition in space would appear to be looming large once again.