by Douglas Messier
During the National Space Council meeting in March. Vice President Mike Pence declared that the United States was in a space race with China. That declaration was not particularly newsworthy; China’s military-run space program has been surging in recent years as the emerging Asian superpower seeks superiority on the high frontier.
Pence did raise some eyebrows when he used China’s rise to justify move up America’s return to the moon by four years from 2028 to 2024. Was China’s human spaceflight program really planning to move that quickly? Does the moon have that much strategic value? Were the two nations really in a race to the lunar surface?
If they weren’t then, they are now. Maybe.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reports:
China aims to build a scientific research station in the south polar region of the moon and realize manned lunar exploration mission in about ten years, said a senior space official on Wednesday.
Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration, made the remarks at the opening ceremony of China’s Space Day in Changsha, capital of central China’s Hunan Province.
That is all details the story provides. There is no information about a schedule, budget, or what “about 10 years means.” Nothing that would allow an outsider to judge whether the seriousness of the effort.
Still, even a vague announcement might help the Trump Administration sell its plans to a still skeptical Congress. At hearings after Pence’s speech, legislators expressed skepticism about the urgency of once again racing another country to the moon.
Of course, an actual proposal with a schedule and budget numbers would have helped. In his speech, Pence boldly claimed that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had just told him the space agency had a plan. It actually didn’t.
Published reports indicate Bridenstine plans to have a proposal ready by the end of this month. He has said that NASA will seek an additional appropriation on top of its $21.5 billion budget for the current 2019 fiscal year.
The south pole is where the Trump Administration wants to land astronauts in time for Pence’s presidential run in 2024. Since China is also aiming to set up shop in that same area, could a cooperative program be in the works? The answer from the Administration is not yet.
In a speech earlier this week, National Space Council Executive Director Scott Pace noted that past cooperation in space between the United States and the Soviet Union (and later, Russia) followed an improvement in relations between the rival nations.
A level of trust is required between the two nations because joint space activities can be undertaken, Pace said. That is especially true when it comes to the high profile and high risk area of human spaceflight. That trust does not currently exist between the U.S. and China, he added.
Pace said that smaller measures involving space science, such as an exchange of lunar samples, could help to build trust between the two nations. China plans to launch its Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission later this year.
However, he warned his audience to be wary of Chinese espionage efforts when forging links in space cooperation.