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Are we prepared for Chinese preeminence on the moon and Mars? (op-ed)

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and author of “The Music of Space” and “Alcohol in Space.” Joe Cassady is Director, Civil Space at L3Harris as well as Executive VP of Explore Mars, Inc. They contributed this article to’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The United States appears to be entering the golden age of space exploration. Over the past few years, the nation has conducted an unprecedented number of launches, countless space hardware developments, and notched innumerable other milestones. Nevertheless, despite these accomplishments, the United States could lose its decades-old leadership in space exploration and technology to China.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is making steady drives forward in all aspects of human and robotics capabilities. China’s space accomplishments over the past few years include the success of the Long March 5B heavy-lift vehicle and the construction of the Tiangong space station. In 2019, China became the first nation to successfully “soft-land” a vehicle, the robotic Chang’e 4 rover-lander duo, on the far side of the moon. Then, a year later, the Chang’e 5 mission successfully accomplished a sample-return mission from the moon.

Related: China moving at ‘breathtaking speed’ in final frontier, Space Force says

More recently, on March 20, 2024, China launched its relay satellite, Queqiao-2. This accomplishment will enable the Chinese to conduct operations on the far side of the moon, and lays the groundwork for the Chang’e 6 lunar far side sample return mission later this year, to be followed by the Chang’e 7 lander and rover in 2026 and the Chang’e 8 mission in 2028, which will include a lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) demonstration. China has also announced a goal for surface missions by Chinese taikonauts, possibly by 2030. And, as the United States and its partners continue to struggle with achieving a Mars Sample Return mission, China has announced its goal to conduct such a mission in 2030.

While these accomplishments still pale by comparison to those of the United States over the past 60 years, the rate at which the Chinese have been catching up is alarming. According to a 2022 Pentagon report, the U.S. could lose its lead in space technology as soon as 2045. The report notes that, while U.S. industrial capacity is expanding, “the upward trajectory of the People’s Republic of China…is even steeper, with a significant rate of overtake, requiring urgent action.” The report added that “the U.S. lacks a clear and cohesive long-term vision, a grand strategy for space that sustains economic, technological, environmental, social and military (defense) leadership for the next half century and beyond.”

Why is this important? Investment in space exploration and development capabilities is an investment in the country. These endeavors bolster innovation and new markets, as well as national standing, diplomacy and national security, while at the same time assure that the United States remains the undisputed leader in scientific discovery, inspiration and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. And while NASA is a civilian space agency, we can’t ignore the broader implications of surrendering our lead in space. According to the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s report to Congress, “Beijing has specific plans not merely to explore space, but to industrially dominate the space within the moon’s orbit of Earth. China has invested significant resources in exploring the national security and economic value of this area, including its potential for space-based manufacturing, resource extraction, and power generation, although experts differ on the feasibility of some of these activities.”

The good news is that the United States still has a clear advantage in this competition. Over the past several years, we have seen the successful launch of the Artemis 1 mission, with Artemis 2 and 3 scheduled to occur by the end of 2027. Meanwhile, commercial entities are launching at an unprecedented rate, significantly expanding our overall national capacity to reach space. In short, this is our race to lose.

Related: NASA’s Artemis program: Everything you need to know

Given the progress that the United States has made in developing space infrastructure and capabilities in recent years, why are we at risk of being surpassed? Dean Cheng of the U.S. Institute of Peace told us thatpart of the problem is, “while people are interested in space, it is not as in the public imagination and concern as it was during the Space Race of the 1960s, when there were space launches every few weeks. Ironically, because space has become more routinized, there is less concern about competition.” With so many other major national issues that hold center stage, the Administration and Congress also do not appear to be appropriately focused and motivated in what truly constitutes the new Space Race. Stable bipartisan support remains, but we seem to lack a sense of national urgency.

Nevertheless, unlike most domestic programs, our plan to send humans to the moon and Mars is something of a “unicorn” in our divisive political environment. It represents a program and an objective that has had strong bipartisan support for over a decade. This rare example of political solidarity should not be ignored. It should be embraced as evidence that our elected officials can unite on some issues — and in so doing, help to solidify our national standing for decades to come.

However, we must not repeat the policy mistakes of the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s. While Apollo successfully landed crews on the moon by the end of the 1960s, it was not a sustainable program from a budgetary or political perspective. Upwards of 4%of the annual federal budget was committed to Apollo (as compared to NASA’s current budget of less than 0.5% of the federal budget). The program also only had one significant political objective — to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. It succeeded spectacularly in this regard. It was unquestionably a major milestone in human history. But after its success and the realization that the Soviet Union was abandoning its lunar aspirations, there remained little political motivation to continue the program, and it was abruptly halted.

NASA’s current budget is unlikely to increase dramatically in the near future, but the United States can nevertheless still build a sustainable program that ensures that we retain our hard-earned status as the preeminent space nation. Rather than the military-like campaign of the Apollo program, we have a chance to prevail by harnessing the ingenuity and capabilities of our U.S. commercial industry and our international partners. By doing so, we simultaneously advance a vital national interest but also stimulate innovative new markets and strengthen our international alliances.

Are there risks? Of course. Virtually every great human accomplishment has required innumerable forms of risk. However, by accepting these risks, we will give ourselves a very real chance that the rest of the 21st century will not only be an American century but one where we have nurtured major new markets and created stronger international relations.

Note: An expert panel will be discussing this topic at the 2024 Humans to Mars Summit taking place on May 7-8, 2024 at the Jack Morton Auditorium, at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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