‘We better be careful’: NASA boss sounds alarm over China’s lunar ambitions

He cited an example on land in the South China Sea, where the Chinese military has established bases on disputed islands. “If you doubt that, look at what they did with the Spratly Islands.”

Nelson’s warmongering comments follow 26 days of NASA Mission Artemis I, in which an unmanned Orion space capsule flew around the moon. The mission, widely considered a success, was the first big step towards NASA’s plan to land astronauts on the lunar surface to begin building a more permanent human presence – which could take place as early as 2025.

This also follows the adoption by Congress of an annual budget for NASA. The agency didn’t get all the funding it asked for, but Nelson insisted the “needs” weren’t short-changed. This includes key components for the next two lunar missions, Artemis II and Artemis III.

But China’s aggressive space program, including its recent opening of a new space station. Beijing announced a goal of landing taikonauts on the moon by the end of this decade. In December, the Chinese government presented his vision for more ambitious projects such as the construction of infrastructures in space and the creation of a space governance system.

Any major delays or mishaps in the US program, which relies on a series of new systems and equipment still under development, could risk falling behind the Chinese. And NASA’s moon landing schedule has already moved back a year from the Trump administration.

In recent years, Beijing has launched a series of robotic landers and rovers to collect lunar samples – including for the first time on the far side of the moon – as well as an orbiter, lander and rover that have reached Mars.

The US military, which has also expressed growing concern over Beijing’s development of space systems that could threaten US satellites, has sounded the alarm over the security implications of Beijing’s deep space incursions.

“It’s entirely possible that they could catch up to us and overtake us, absolutely,” Space Force Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno said. said last month during a visit to Australia as China launched its 10th crew to its Shenzhou space station. “The progress they’ve made has been mind-boggling – unbelievably fast.”

A recent Pentagon report to Congress highlighted a series of recent leaps for China’s space program.

He cited China’s pioneering ability not only to land on the far side of the moon, but also to set up a communication relay using a satellite launched the previous year between Earth and the Moon. Moon.

The report also revealed that China is improving its ability to manufacture space launch systems for human exploration further into space.

Some NASA veterans are also watching with growing concern.

Terry Virts, former commander of the International Space Station and Space Shuttle and retired Air Force colonel, said the competition has political and security elements.

“At some level it’s a political competition to show which system works best,” he said in an interview. “What they really want is respect as the best country in the world. They want to be the dominant power on Earth, so going to the moon is a way to show that their system works. If they take us back to the moon, it shows that they are better than us.

But there are practical threats that a Chinese foot on the moon could present, he added.

“There are potential misdeeds that China can do on the moon,” Virts said. “If they install infrastructure there, they could potentially prevent communications, for example. Having them there doesn’t make it any easier. There is real concern about Chinese interference.

The Chinese Communist government maintains that such concerns about its motives are unfounded.

“Some US officials have spoken irresponsibly to distort China’s normal and legitimate space efforts,” Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in a statement. “China firmly rejects such remarks.”

“Outer space is not a battleground,” he added. “The exploration and peaceful uses of outer space is the common endeavor of mankind and should benefit all. China always advocates the peaceful use of space, opposes militarization and the arms race in space, and actively works to build a community with a shared future for mankind in space. .

Nelson said he was confident the US effort to return to the moon first is on schedule, noting congressional funding for the Artemis program. Congress this week approved $24.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2023, about half a billion dollars less than President Joe Biden had requested.

But it still marks an increase of more than 5% from this year. And Nelson said the lunar effort was getting what NASA asked for.

“Don’t look at the topline,” he said. “Look at the main thing.” Nelson cited, for example, the Human Landing System in the form of SpaceX’s Starliner and a competition for a second lander that is now underway.

“It was fully funded at the request of the president,” Nelson said.

He said he was confident that the next lunar mission, Artemis II, could take place “within two years” and “hopefully we can speed that up.” This mission plan is to send a crew to orbit the moon by 2024.

But he said the space agency was under intense pressure because it was forced, as a cost-saving measure, to reuse all avionics inside the Artemis I capsule for Artemis II.

Because it hasn’t developed a fully equipped spacecraft for Artemis II, NASA must strip the just-returned capsule of all its spaceflight systems and reinstall them in another. “It’s costing us time,” Nelson said.

The goal is still to have Artemis II flying by the end of 2024, he said, but “they tell me they can’t [speed it up,] that they need that time to redo them and recertify and all that.

Next comes the Artemis III goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by the end of 2025, already a year later than the Trump administration’s plan.

“It will all depend on two things,” Nelson said. “The space is suitable, are they ready? And is SpaceX ready? And I ask the question every day: ‘How is SpaceX progressing? And all of our managers tell me that they are hitting all of their milestones. »

But he is clearly worried that China is also gaining ground – and looking at some of the same places for its moon landings.

“China over the past decade has seen tremendous success and progress,” he said. “It is also true that their moon landing date is getting closer and closer,” according to the country’s announcements.

“And there are only a limited number of places on the south pole of the moon that are suitable for what we think, at this point, for water collection and so on,” he said. -he declares.

When asked if American astronauts would return to the Moon before China arrived, Nelson replied, “God willing.”

Still, not everyone is convinced that Washington and Beijing are headed for a moon fight.

“I’m skeptical,” said Victoria Samson, Washington director of the Secure World Foundation, which is dedicated to the peaceful use of outer space.

She noted that China, like the United States, is party to the Outer Space Treatywhich prohibits nations from making territorial claims on any celestial body, including the moon.

It will also be difficult for any nation to maintain a long-term human presence in deep space, she said. “It seems unrealistic. It will be extremely difficult.

But she agreed there could be competition between Washington and Beijing for “limited landing sites and resources” on the lunar surface.

“That’s where we made the argument that it’s necessary to engage with China,” Samson said, “because of the possibility of landing close to each other or having to provide emergency services to astronauts or taikonauts”.


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