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The Moon’s Hayn Crater, taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2017. Image courtesy of NASA.


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There is no Race to the Moon

Image courtesy of Euronews.

The space race is a common and overly simplistic depiction of the international competition for some great space endeavour. Today’s competition for the moon is also depicted as being a race, when in fact it is a long-term competition over whose economic system is capable of outlasting all of the others. 

The aim of this competition is not to be first, as though returning to the moon is the space equivalent of a 100 metre sprint, but who can sustain a viable presence on the moon the longest, not too dissimilar to a decathlon.

The space competition during the Cold War is a prime example of how the racing narrative can lead us astray. The Soviet Union and the United States were locked into a technological competition with each other to put the first satellite in orbit (Sputnik), the first human being into space (Yuri Gagarin), and the first human on the moon (Neil Armstrong). Yes, there were occasional sprints within the wider competition for these firsts, but when we look back from a larger perspective they actually did not matter. The Soviet Union was the first to launch an orbiting satellite and a human being into space, but ultimately lost the competition. The United Stars, despite being second to the Soviets at the outset of the Space Age, ultimately prevailed in the competition when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on to the lunar surface.

Fast forward to the 2020s and the racing narrative is back in vogue, not just in the media but also among senior officials – some of whom should know better. The Western media in particular is breathlessly characterising the competition between the United States and China to return humans to the moon as a race. And politicians, such as NASA Administrator Senator Bill Nelson, has all but made it a race with some recent comments speculating what might happen should China return humans to the moon before the U.S

The media’s use of the racing metaphor, while inaccurate, is at least understandable. Editors often seek to make salacious or dramatic headlines out of otherwise prosaic stories to sell copy in a tough and crowded media market. Politicians, on the other hand, often employ the racing metaphor as red meat for a fired-up base or to curry domestic political favour. The problem, however, is to assume that racing rhetoric, while inaccurate and even irritating, is ultimately harmless. It isn’t, and not necessarily for reasons that some might assume. Racing rhetoric leads decision makers to misunderstand the character of the competition at hand, make rash policies as a result, that, in turn, lead to unsustainable levels of funding. 

International space competition has become an important aspect of global great power politics, especially among great powers. Some critics argue that international space competition is strategically destabilizing and could lead to war. In reality it is a safety valve among nuclear-armed powers that diverts resources and talent into a less deadly and dangerous form of competition. Better to compete to return humans to the moon than with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. As Deganit Paikowsky, the renowned scholar of space and international relations, points out in her 2017 book, The Power of the Space Club

Research and development of space technology is similar in many ways to research and development of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons technology. This led the superpowers to use space exploration and technology as a somewhat peaceful substitute for obtaining and demonstrating power and global leadership. (pp. 8-9)

To characterize today’s competition for the return of human beings to the moon as a ‘race’ is not only incorrect but is also liable to force politicians to back up their own heated rhetoric with inappropriate policy and budget prescriptions. If Senator Nelson is not careful, especially in a divided Washington, DC, he may find that appropriators will defund the Artemis program once the first Americans in well over fifty years return to the moon. Why? Well, because policy makers, having convinced themselves that it is a race to return to the moon, will convince themselves that a returned human crew is the end of the race and the job is done.

The whole character of the competition to return humans to the moon is not a race to be first but a competition to demonstrate who can sustain a human presence on the moon the longest. Judging by the uncharacteristically restrained rhetoric of China on this matter it could be that Beijing gets this point. Among the media and political classes in Washington, however, it’s far from evident that this important point is well understood.

In reality the Chinese space programme is so far behind that of the United States, despite making impressive strides over the past few decades, that it is highly unlikely it will send a crewed mission to the moon before the United States. As things currently stand the United Stars will most likely be the first to return humans to the surface of the moon because it has most of the infrastructure and capabilities already in place, or nearing completion. China is far from ready when compared to the U.S., but even if U.S. astronauts are the first to return to the moon, American lawmakers should understand that it will not be the end of the competition – instead, it will only have begun and China will not be dissuaded to pursue its own lunar ambitions.

As in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the United States should focus on the long game when it comes to Lunapolitics. The rhetoric of a moon race reveals a mystifying lack of faith in America’s already impressive capabilities, a temptation to make rash policies, and a willingness to authorize unsustainable funding for a short-term, tactical gain of being “first” in a race that doesn’t even exist.

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The Lunapolitics of U.S.-China Lunar Rivalry: Rhetoric and Reality

Senator Bill Nelson, Administrator of NASA. Photograph courtesy of Alex Brandon AP/FILE.

In a 1 January 2023 interview with Bryan D. Bender of Politico the NASA Administrator, Senator Bill Nelson, put the politics into Lunapolitics when he warned that the U.S. is in a race against China to be the first to put humans back on the moon, and that if that race is lost, then the Chinese may well claim territory on the lunar surface and block the United States from landing there.

The uproar was ferocious as it was predictable. Chinese propagandists took to their state organs and denied that China has any geopolitical and lunapolitical interest in the moon, claiming that Beijing’s intent is purely peaceful and scientific. Further, Chinese officials accused Nelson of being ‘hawkish’ and that space is no place for a ‘wrestling match’ – raising the obvious question: so what are Chinese counterspace capabilities for? Moreover, Chinese commentators accused the U.S. of having hegemonic designs on the moon as if hegemonic intent is an exclusively American neurosis (let’s not mention the South China Sea…ahem).

Senator Nelson is a longtime professional politician and knew exactly what he was saying and why – something that was lost on his detractors at home and abroad. Washington, DC, is a peculiar place where overt political imperatives play a part in pretty much everything, to include the U.S. space program. In Washington, more acutely than anywhere else in the Western world that I have experienced, politics is very much about Harold Lasswell’s old dictum: who gets what, when, how. If you are not making the case that you need budget in such a political environment then you will come up empty. In other words, the target audience for Nelson’s remarks are not the Chinese or even the American public, but members of the U.S. Congress who appropriate the NASA budget every year.

Of particular concern to Nelson will be the new Republican controlled House of Representatives – assuming that they are able to elect a Speaker that can then sit the House into a legislative session. The Republicans, ostensibly concerned with what they consider to be excessive budgets, inflationary pressures, and the ballooning national debt, will cast a suspicious eye on all of President Biden’s budget requests over the next two years while they are in control of the House. The Artemis program has a hefty price tag and Nelson – a Blue Dog Democrat from Florida who understands the political forces propelling Republicans – needs to make a strong case to the House of Representatives that future NASA budget requests need to be fulfilled. Chest-beating, fear-mongering, and nationalist rhetoric, in Nelson’s calculation, seems to be one way at least to persuade Republicans to continue funding Artemis.

While Nelson’s rhetoric may serve a particular political purpose in Washington, DC, it is also bunkum in terms of many of his claims. First, while China is undoubtedly serious about its lunar ambitions it is a bit of a stretch to claim that it may beat the United States to return humans to the moon. China does not even have a ready launch vehicle and crew-rated lunar lander capable of taking its Taikonauts to the moon, and while a Chinese technological surprise cannot be ruled out it should be reassuring to Americans that they at least have a suitable, albeit flawed, launch vehicle in the Space Launch System (SLS) and that NASA and U.S. industry are actively working on various human-rated spacecraft and landers, some of which are in very advanced stages.

3dScultor/iStock via Getty Images

Second, the claim that China – even if it were able to put its Taikonauts on the moon before America astronauts arrive – could actively keep the U.S. out of valuable lunar real estate is preposterous for a variety of reasons not least because China does not have the logistical wherewithal to blockade the moon. It is going to be technologically and financially challenging enough to safely send and return Chinese and American crews to the moon never mind engage in territorial disputes on the lunar surface or in cislunar space anytime soon. Additionally, when it comes to the international legal status of the moon, as characterized in the Outer Space Treaty, it is China that is the status quo power not the United States given that the U.S. is pushing the Artemis Accords that seek to codify commercial activities on the moon and elsewhere in the Solar System. While Chinese accusations of American hegemony are more than a bit rich, the notion that China could do on the moon what it is currently doing in the South China Sea or on the Chinese-Indian Himalayan border stretches credulity. If both Artemis and China’s lunar program are a success a decade from now and both countries have established a reliable and regular Earth-to-Moon transportation system then we might have plausible concern about lunapolitical shenanigans. It should be noted, however, that those concerns will be shared by Beijing and not just Washington, DC.

Third, while I firmly believe that Senator Nelson was politically calculating in his remarks he has undoubtedly and explicitly committed the United States to a race to beat China in returning humans to the moon. If, for whatever reason, the United States loses that proclaimed race then it will be a reputational setback for NASA at the very least. Nelson’s bet that Republican’s will fully fund Artemis in the coming years had better pay off.

More importantly, by committing the United States to this race to the moon Nelson may have inadvertently missed the real competition at hand with China. The rush to be first back to the moon with human explorers will not be anywhere near as important as the long-term competition to sustain a human presence on the lunar surface and in cislunar space. Better to get the programmatics and operations required to get humans back to the moon right, and steward the budget politics in Washington, DC, rather than cede rhetorical and lunapolitical advantage to the Chinese.

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Lunapolitics Or Lunapolitik? The Choice Is Ours

More than fifty years after the first Apollo Moon landings, we are witnessing the rise of Lunapolitics, where the Moon’s topography – or ‘Lunography’ – from below its surface through to Cislunar space intersects with Earthly political and economic interests.

If we manage Lunapolitics sensibly then our eventual permanent presence on and around the Moon – as well as our exploitation of its resources – will be relatively benign, peaceful, and even sustainable. If we get Lunapolitics right, people can benefit from new economic opportunities, advances in scientific knowledge, and the opening of a space exploration and commercial gateway to the rest of the Solar System.

If we get it wrong, however, it is likely that instead of managing stable and predictable, if occasionally challenging, Lunapolitics we will likely have to endure an intolerable Lunapolitik, an off-world approximation of Karl Haushofer’s Geopolitik which inspired Nazi Germany’s violent geopolitical expansionism.

Until now, Lunapolitics has literally been the stuff of science fiction as depicted in novels by, for example, Robert Heinlein and Ian McDonald, or movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and the more recent Ad Astra. Even during the height of the Cold War, when the United States landed Apollo astronauts on the Moon the locus of the strategic competition for ideological supremacy with the Soviet Union remained back here on Earth, even though the rivalry extended to space.

Today, Lunapolitics is rising because the Moon is the object of growing international and commercial competition, rather than being just the incidental location of a war of ideas as it was in the past.

In fact, a number of developments to do with our presence on and around the Moon are in play today. If they are even moderately successful, they will make Lunapolitics – the lunar corollary of geopolitics – a permanent reality by the end of this decade.

These developments include a converging competition for the Moon primarily between the United States and China, with both countries trying to woo other space powers to their side. These other powers include Russia, Europe (through the European Space Agency), India, and Japan, among others.

China’s impressive Chang’e lunar exploration programme – which includes contributions from European and Middle Eastern space powers – is expected to be completed with a Chinese crew making a landing at the Moon’s South Pole, where scientists expect to find some of the biggest deposits of ice, which could then be harvested for water, oxygen, and fuel. Additionally, China’s Queqiao (‘Magpie Bridge’) communications relay satellite is in a halo orbit around the Earth-Moon Lagrange point L2 – a potential strategic chokepoint in Lunpolitics.

For its part, the United States has, of course, already landed a dozen human beings on the lunar surface, one of the greatest and most inspiring human achievements in history. But it is not content to end things there. Instead, the US has set itself the ambitious goal of returning Americans to the Moon by 2024.

The US is also leading a multi-billion dollar international effort involving the European Space Agency, Canada, and Japan to build the Lunar Gateway space station that will be placed in a halo orbit around the Moon and its Lagrange points, which are potential strategic chokepoints in Lunapolitics. Additionally, the US military is commissioning studies from commercial vendors on how to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations in Cislunar space and on the Moon’s surface.

Lunapolitics is not just about great power competition, cooperation, and positioning over the Moon and its strategic chokepoints. It is also an economic competition – Lunaeconomics played out over the Moon’s resources, involving private and state-backed corporations.

After the demise of Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries over the past several years, a second generation of companies is vying to exploit resources on the Moon and other celestial bodies such as comets and asteroids.

Unlike the first generation of space resources companies that were exclusively American, this second generation includes a larger number of firms from other countries, such as China, Japan, Australia, Germany, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, as well as the United States.

This international field is, in turn, exerting influence on their respective governments and their longstanding policy assumptions regarding the legal and diplomatic status of the Moon and space resource extraction in general.

Some countries, such as Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, have already created legal, regulatory, and policy instruments that essentially recognise the Moon as a place for economic – and, implicitly, political – competition.

For example, on 6 April 2020, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order on ‘Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources’ that calls for a significant US diplomatic effort to create a community of like-minded countries to establish the necessary norms and governance for exploiting space resources on the Moon and elsewhere, as soon as it is technologically feasible to do so. The executive order also calls for a rejection of the 1979 Moon Agreement and the notion that space is a global commons.

The executive order has sparked a fierce international debate – much of it taking place here on SpaceWatch.Global – and it is an indication that the current diplomatic and legal arrangements governing commercial space activities relating to space resource extraction, as well as the status of the Moon and other celestial bodies, might yet be disrupted.

The fact that the executive order has sparked such a debate among diplomats and lawyers is itself an indication of the coming rise of Lunapolitics. If the issue were truly regarded as unimportant and irrelevant, then diplomats would not expend so much political capital, nor lawyers rack up so many expensive billable hours.

These developments are the foundation for the rise of Lunapolitics – but only if they are handled responsibly and in a self-enlightened manner by all involved.

This means that the primary players in the growing competition for the Moon, primarily the United States and China but also the other space powers, should engage immediately  in good-faith discussions about the governance of all space resource extraction activities on the Moon (as well as elsewhere), with the aim of finding a compromise to end current controversies, such as the relevance of the 1979 Moon Agreement – an agreement that only 18 countries have signed and ratified.

These discussions should cover such issues as the right and freedom of passage through and on the Moon’s strategic chokepoints such as the lunar poles and the Lagrange points in Cislunar space, the recognition of claims, legal protections, and arbitration arrangements for lunar sites where resources are to be extracted, as well as long-term principles that ensure sustainable and responsible activity in, on, and around the Moon.

The recently announced Artemis Accords may provide the basis for such discussions, but this will depend not just on what these accords propose, but also on the international reaction to them. The US should use the Artemis Accords as just one basis for negotiation with other countries, and not use them as part of a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ agenda. Similarly, a rejection of the accords by other countries simply because they are a US idea, or because of a political aversion to President Trump, will be just as short-sighted.

Failure to engage in such discussions and to scorn good-faith compromise based on narrow ideological and short-term interests is to invite the worst-case scenario — the rise of Lunapolitik.

In Lunapolitik, rival countries adopt a zero-sum approach to their competition with each other, occupying and reoccupying instead of sharing strategic or economically valuable locations on and around the Moon. Such an eventuality will make the overt militarization of competition for the Moon all but inevitable.

Furthermore, a Lunapolitik scenario would encourage mercantilist competition for the Moon’s resources, that in turn could create the conditions for commercial raiding and private military contractors, and all of the political and economic costs and risks that would come with all that. Think of the Moon as depicted in the 2019 Brad Pitt movie Ad Astra, but on steroids.

Lunapolitik scenario will be in the interests of no one, and so the current players in the rise of Lunapolitics have a stark choice in front of them. Create a diplomatic and governance framework that encourages healthy (and necessary) competition for the Moon and its resources, and allows all who can get there to participate in that competition, or, preside over a catastrophic, expensive, and zero-sum scrap that will make our first significant permanent foray into space a benighted one for all time.

The choice is ours. A Lunapolitik scenario does not have to be inevitable even if geopolitical realities today can make compromise difficult. If diplomats can keep their eyes on the future of the Moon and its potential for all humankind, as well as on the political and economic interests of their respective governments today, we might just come up with something workable and durable.

Lunapolitics doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to do the job of maintaining stability and bounding competition. That is a worthwhile endeavour.

This article was originally published in SpaceWatch.Global on 10 May 2020.

© John B. Sheldon