How Russia and China Ignited the New Space Race to the Moon

A return to the moon is closer than you think. But who will get there first?

The late 1950s saw the beginning of the modern space age and a new off-planet battleground for the Cold War. The victor would be the first to set foot on the moon. While Russia took an early lead, the U.S. eventually won the Cold War in space by landing Apollo 11 on July 20th, 1969.

Just like in the ‘50s, the U.S. is entering this new race to the moon a few steps behind. With Russia and China planning manned missions to the moon, there’s been talk of the U.S. changing its focus from the planned mission to Mars, back to the moon. According to one of the last men to get there, the United States once again walking on the surface of the moon may not be far off.

In early December 2017, I had the opportunity to go through Space Camp training at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It was part of a press event for National Geographic Channel’s One Strange Rock and Mars TV series. I know what you are thinking, but Space Camp is not just for kids anymore. Although I will admit, Elmer’s glue and scissors were part of the curriculum.

The Space Center held a dinner to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission in the magnificent Saturn V Hall of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, on December 7th. The keynote speaker was former Apollo Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last humans to walk on the surface of the moon.

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During a short press conference, I asked Schmitt if he felt the U.S. discussing going back to the moon while Russia and China have their lunar programs underway meant a new space race to the moon was inevitable. He responded, “I think it has already started.”

“China certainly has committed itself to be a dominant space-faring nation,” Schmitt continued. “We need to be sure to recognize that and become competitive even more so than we are today.”

That next Monday, on December 11th, Schmitt was standing next to President Donald Trump as the President signed Presidential Space Directive – 1. The directive changed NASA’s focus from sending humans to Mars next to sending them to the moon first.

The first space race pushed the boundaries of innovation, leaving a significant impact on the world. As our relationships with Russia and China continue to face challenges, we can only hope that a space race in the modern era will be as much — ideally more — about international cooperation and understanding as it will be about advanced weapons development.

According to David Ignatius, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post on April 19, 2018, “Space is the new frontier of warfare. That was the theme of a ‘Space Symposium’ [in Colorado Springs (home of USAF Space Command)] this week that gathered thousands of military and corporate experts from around the globe.”

The space race sparked in the late 1950s was as much about advancing Russian and U.S. capabilities of transporting nuclear bombs as it was about transporting humans to space. According to the CIA: “the R-7 missile used to launch Sputnik was an ICBM.” “Soviet statements hailed the R-7 as a ‘super long-distance intercontinental multistage ballistic rocket,’” they continue. “The satellite launch, coupled with the two successful Soviet ICBM tests, suggested that the Soviet Union was achieving nuclear superiority.”

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Like the U.S., China was alarmed by Russia’s successful launch of Sputnik, the first satellite in space, in 1957. The CIA calls the launch of Sputnik the beginning of the dawn of the space age. Along with the U.S., China began working on their first satellite that same year. However, by the time China got their first satellite into space in 1970, the U.S. had already put people on the moon.

China did not get humans into space until 2003. Since then, China’s space agency, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), has made an aggressive push to send humans to space with regularity. They have launched, utilized, and scuttled an orbiting space lab and have a rover on the moon. This year, they plan to do what no other space agency has been able to accomplish: China intends to land a rover on the far side of the moon. 

Chinese officials recently announced their lunar rover will also establish a mini-biosphere. The biosphere will contain flowers and silkworms they hope will thrive in their new lunar home. As for humans, the Chinese are aiming for the mid-to-late 2030s to get their first taikonauts (a term used for CNSA astronauts) on the lunar surface.

Last month, China announced it would boost their recruitment of taikonauts and seek candidates from the civilian population, an opportunity previously open only to former Air Force pilots. With the CNSA’s ambitious goals, they will need the added personnel. Besides their focus on lunar missions, the Chinese hope to begin construction of a space station next year. They were not allowed to participate in the International Space Station (ISS). China hopes to send crews to their station by 2022.

Tiangong-1, the Chinese space lab that fell out of the sky recently, was a successful precursor mission to prepare for the construction of their space station.

With all of this activity, China has found their stride in the race to space, and it is not going unnoticed.

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“I think that China will overtake the US in the space business — if we allow them to,” Astronaut Scott Kelly recently told Business Insider.

Although China is already off to the races when it comes to the moon, Russia plans on getting into the game next year with the launch of their Luna-25 lander. The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) addressed rumors of delays recently by affirming Luna-25 will launch next year.

Luna-25 is the first of three moon missions Russia has planned. Luna-25 will land near the lunar south pole to examine the chemical composition of the lunar surface. A lunar orbiter, Luna-26 is scheduled for 2021, and Luna-27, a landing station, is planned for 2022.

Russia’s plans for the moon do not end there. According to Tech Times, last month cosmonauts asked Putin if a manned mission to the moon was in the works. He answered, “Yes, it is.”

“As you may know the program extends up to 2030,” Putin added. “The finishing touches are being put to the spacecraft Federatsiya, and research and development is on for building a super-heavy rocket to be used for the lunar program.”

Since the Cold War, one area of cooperation between Russia and the U.S. has been in space. However, as our political relationship with Russia cools, so goes our partnership in space. SpaceX has become a significant source for resupply missions to the ISS, and Soyuz capabilities to shuttle astronauts to and from the ISS end in the fall of 2019. Boeing and SpaceX are competing to take over that position.

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Russian space dominance is waning as private corporations move in. According to Ars Technica, in 2013 Russia controlled around 50 percent of the commercial satellite launch market. That has dropped to 10 percent this year, and Russia has been sending signals they have no designs to catch up to the new space tycoons, such as SpaceX, who has captured an estimated 50 percent of the commercial satellite launch market.

“The share of launch vehicles is as small as 4 percent of the overall market of space services,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told Russian news. “The 4 percent stake isn’t worth the effort to try to elbow Musk and China aside.”

These are dim signs for the prospect of Russia and the U.S. remaining space-buddies. But perhaps there is hope. One result of the first space race to the moon was an enduring partnership between Russian and the U.S. And with any luck, a new space race can rekindle that relationship.