Why the United States will beat China in the new moon race

 Why the United States will beat China in the new moon race

A 21st century version of the race to the moon is taking place. Few people realize it. No one, least of all the president of the United States, has proclaimed a space race with the ringing tones of a JFK. Yet, the race has started, and the winner may well own the future.

China is one of the participants, as the recent launch of the Queqiao communications satellite reminds us. Queqiao or “Magpie Bridge” is currently orbiting around the Earth-Moon Lagrange point where the gravities of the two worlds cancel out over the lunar far side. Queqiao will serve as a communications relay for the Chang’e 4 lander and rover due to touch down on the lunar surface toward the end of the year.

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The planned landing is just the latest in a program of lunar exploration that China has embarked upon to establish itself as the dominant space power of the 21st century. The Chinese are planning a series of ever more sophisticated missions to the moon leading to the landing of astronauts, a feat only accomplished by the United States during the Apollo program.

 

China not only regards the exploration of the moon as a political feat, wrought with as much prestige and symbolism as the Apollo 11 lunar landing was in 1969, but something that will derive practical benefits through access to the moon’s resources. The Chinese hope to supplant the United States as the dominant space power.

However, a number of policy decisions undertaken by the United States very likely means that China has likely already lost the second race to the moon. The reason the Chinese are almost certain to fall short is that they are following the old Soviet playbook for conducting space exploration. It is government-centric and somewhat limited in its potential to benefit China’s economy.

Meanwhile, President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE signed a couple of low-key executive orders that have fundamentally changed the way the United States is going to explore space. The first executive order directed NASA to return American astronauts to the moon before sending them to Mars and other places in the solar system. The order reversed an Obama-era directive that ordered NASA to bypass the moon.

The second executive order directed all of the departments and agencies of the executive branch to streamline regulations for commercial spaceflight activities. The order will allow commercial space companies to more easily comply with government rules while they help open up the high frontier to economic development.

The two orders mesh with NASA’s plan to restart lunar exploration with commercial and international partners. The space agency plans to buy flights to the moon on commercial lunar landers of increasing size and complexity. When Americans return to the moon, the plan is to land in a vehicle developed and operated by a private company.

The new approach, very different from the one taken during Apollo, uses a competitive advantage that the United States has over China. Aside from a few small startups, the “commercial” space sector in China consists mainly of state-run enterprises, almost indistinguishable from government departments. Some true private space companies have been formed, but are currently relegated to developing niche technologies such as small launchers.

China has no equivalent to SpaceX or Blue Origin, not to mention Moon Express or Astrobotic, two companies eager to join NASA’s new push to the moon. Its government culture, which seeks control over China’s citizens and institutions as much as possible, tends to discourage the freewheeling behavior of entrepreneurial companies. China gets its innovations mainly by stealing them from other countries.

NASA has combined its experience and institutional memory with the flexibility and willingness to take risks that characterizes the private sector to create a potent back-to-the-moon program. Partly, this approach is being made out of necessity. America may want to return to the moon, but it is not willing to pay for a repeat of Apollo. However, the United States has stumbled into a new method of conducting a space race, one that focuses as much on economic development as it does science and political prestige.

The United States is unleashing the forces of free-market capitalism to return to the moon. By so doing, NASA’s new coalition is likely to run rings around China. When the Chinese eventually land on the moon, Americans and their allies may well be there to greet them.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”