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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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