Space News recently reported that China and Russia have signed a memorandum of understanding to build what the two countries call an “International Lunar Research Station” (ILRS). The facility would conduct a number of activities either on the lunar surface or lunar orbit and would be “open to all interested countries and international partners.”
Whether deliberate or not, the two countries have formed an axis against what has come to be known as the Artemis Alliance being formed by NASA with a number of countries and commercial partners. In effect, China and Russia have challenged the United States and the rest of the world to a new race to the moon.
With the Biden administration having endorsed the Trump-era Artemis program, it looks like two credible, rival return-to-the-moon programs are now ongoing. Since one of those programs is run by two authoritarian nations and the other is led by NASA and consists of what many would consider the civilized world, the very definition of a race to the moon has developed, without fanfare, without brave speeches throwing down gauntlets.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
On the positive side, nothing like competition with a hostile power or two focuses the mind and ensures that the Artemis program remains on track and on a sensible schedule. The Apollo program succeeded because the winner of the race to the moon would have bragging rights for being the more technologically adept superpower.
On the negative side, what happens to determine which side “wins” the modern space race? During the Apollo-era, the answer was easy. President John F. Kennedy declared the goal of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the end of the 1960s. In July 1969, the mission was accomplished. Indeed, the Apollo program had enough momentum for six more manned lunar missions before the United States stopped going to the moon and turned to other priorities.
What must happen for the winner to be declared in the new moon race? Who is first to return to the moon is not as important as what happens next.
The south pole of the moon is replete with water ice in shadowed craters, Water can be used to help sustain a lunar base. Water can be refined into rocket propellent, making the moon a refueling stop for spacecraft headed to other destinations in the solar system, such as Mars.
The moon also has a number of other resources ranging from rare earths, to platinum-group metals, to industrial metals such as titanium, iron and aluminum. Helium-3, an isotope embedded in lunar soil, could serve as fuel for future fusion power plants.
In short, the side that first exploits lunar resources effectively will be the side that creates a space-based industrial revolution enabled by lunar resources. Either the Sino-Russian Axis or the Artemis Alliance will own the future.
A few years ago, according to Space.com, Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College in the UK, suggested that an economic case could be made for prospecting and mining lunar resources as a way to enable a near-Earth industrial infrastructure. He was skeptical about helium-3, which he regarded as a kind of “fossil fuel.” However, he concluded that in aggregate, the variety of resources on the moon could be exploited in an economical manner.
The other question is, who can own space resources? The Outer Space Treaty prohibits any assertion of sovereignty on the moon or any other celestial body. However, Congress passed a law a few years ago called the U.S. Space Launch Competitiveness Act that asserts that American citizens who mine space resources, including on the moon, own those resources. The fact that the United States owns the moon rocks that the Apollo astronauts gathered is seen as a precedent. On the other hand, some suggest that since the act can be seen as an assertion of sovereignty, it violates the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty. The governments of China and Russia might be expected to support the latter view.
In order to avoid conflict over resources on the moon or anywhere else in space, some kind of agreement, perhaps based on the Artemis Accords, needs to be struck between the Artemis Alliance and the Sino-Russian Axis. The first side to exploit a deposit of minerals should own it. Otherwise, we might expect the possibility that the Third World War might start on the moon with catastrophic consequences.
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.