NASA’s Artemis program is a perfect response to China’s coronavirus cover-up
What does the NASA Artemis program, which would return humans to the moon, have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? It may be a good way to respond to the country that is suspected of being responsible for causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, costing trillions of dollars in lost wealth and putting half the population of the planet in forced lockdown.
The Chinese government is culpable for the damage and death the coronavirus pandemic caused. Bloomberg news first reported that American intelligence has determined Beijing lied about the full extent and severity of the outbreak when it first occurred in Wuhan. If the Chinese government had been more forthcoming, other governments might have been able to move sooner to contain the pandemic, saving tens of thousands of lives and lessening the economic calamity that has ensued.
As scientists struggle to save patients while devising treatments and ultimately a vaccine, what should be done to China for its perfidy? Many actions suggest themselves, including ending the outsourcing of products such as medications to Chinese businesses. A demand that China pay monetary reparations is another idea being considered, though how Beijing might be compelled to pay up is a thorny matter.
The seemingly unrelated Artemis program to return Americans to the moon suggests another way to make China pay for the pandemic. Few envision NASA as an instrument of superpower competition as it once was in the 1960s. The space agency is now more disposed to seek partners for its big-ticket endeavors. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has been forging alliances with the space agencies of friendly countries for the Artemis return to the moon program.
However, China has made no secret of the importance that the moon holds in its drive for superpower dominance. Beijing has already landed two rovers on the moon’s surface. It plans to land a sample return mission on the moon by the end of the year and mount a crewed landing in the 2030s.
As the National Review notes, China’s space ambitions include access to the abundant natural resources present on the moon and a permanent occupation of the lunar surface. Just as the United States established itself as the dominant superpower during the Cold War by being the first to land a man on the moon, China means to dominate the world by incorporating the moon into its economic sphere.
NASA’s Artemis project involves landing astronauts on the moon by 2024. Later, the space agency hopes to establish a “base camp” at the lunar south pole to do science and to practice for missions to Mars in the 2030s. In the meantime, President Trump has signed an executive order to encourage space mining by American and allied companies. The order suggests a strategy to hit back at China from an unexpected direction.
Artemis represents an opportunity to demonstrate to the Chinese that the blow the world has taken from the coronavirus pandemic has not crippled the ability of the United States and its international partners to do great things, like return to the moon. NASA and its international and commercial partners should pledge to develop the resources of the moon before China can, thus forestalling its drive for space hegemony.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes the moon has abundant water ice deep inside craters at the lunar poles. Water can be used to sustain a lunar settlement and as the source of rocket fuel. The moon could become a fueling stop for expeditions farther out in the solar system, to destinations such as Mars.
The moon contains helium-3, an isotope not found in nature on Earth that could be used to generate fusion energy. Fusion could be a key to creating clean energy that addresses the problem of climate change.
The moon includes minerals called rare earths that are used for a number of high-tech products such as smartphones as well as television and computer screens. Ironically, China is a major source of rare earths, giving that country an economic advantage comparable to what the Persian Gulf states used to have with oil. Access to rare earths on the moon would break China’s monopoly.
An American-led return to the moon as soon as possible and the development of its resources by western countries would constitute both a psychological and economic blow to China. It would literally deny Beijing the “mandate of heaven” and demonstrate the cost of the antagonism and dishonesty that caused the coronavirus disaster while garnering wealth for the West.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.