The Chinese-Russian Lunar Axis adopts a plan from the late Paul Spudis

Recently, a group of Russian and Chinese space officials revealed plans for what they call an “International Lunar Research Station” during a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. The plan for the facility’s development seemed remarkably similar to one proposed by Paul Spudis, the late lunar geologist and return-to-the-moon advocate, and Tony Lavoie, at the time employed by NASA.

The first phase of the Chinese-Russian moon base will consist of orbiters and landers from both countries and possibly international partners if they can be persuaded. High precision landing technology would be tested. The first phase would take place from 2021 to 2025.

The second phase would consist of more technology verifications, cargo delivery, and the base’s infrastructure development. The second phase would be split into two stages, the first from 2026 to 2030 and the second from 2031 to 2035.

The plan envisions the first crewed human landings to occur in 2036.

Now, we can go back in time a little over 10 years ago and find the paper by Spudis and Lavoie that proposes the exact same incremental approach. The plan contains the same buildup of infrastructure and supplies to take place before the first human landing. It was developed following the destruction of the Constellation Project, President George H. W. Bush’s effort to return to the moon and go on to Mars.

The idea behind the Spudis-Lavoie proposal was a “go as you pay” approach that could proceed as quickly or as slowly as needed, depending on funding availability. The approach would, at least partly, shield the lunar return effort from the political whims of Congress.

Ironically, the Spudis-Lavoie return-to-the-moon proposal is obsolete. The plan predates the rise of SpaceX as a space launch disrupter. It did not imagine the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with their reusable first stages, or the massive Starship rocket. Indeed, neither China nor Russia possess any launch systems with the capabilities of those developed by SpaceX.

A lunar landing version of the Starship is a game changer. With refueling, the Starship can land 100 metric tons of people and cargo on the lunar surface. Forget the slow and steady approach of the Spudis-Lavoie plan. The Starship can deploy enough material to get a good-sized moon base in a relatively short time.

Understandably, as Ars Technica noted, China seems to be watching SpaceX very carefully. A recent promotional video displayed a rocket that would deliver cargo and passengers from point to point on the Earth. It has a remarkable resemblance to the SpaceX Starship. Would the same vehicle be able to go to the moon and Mars?

In any case, American counterintelligence agencies should keep a close watch on any Chinese attempts to steal SpaceX’s intellectual property. Beijing should not be allowed to gain an advantage against the United States with our own technology. Nor should the planned year of the Chinese-Russian lunar landing cause complacency.

Barring any unexpected development, such as the sudden appearance of a Chinese Starship, the United States and the Artemis Alliance of nations and commercial companies should be on the moon as much as a decade before the Chinese-Russian Lunar Axis. Countries that might think of joining the Chinese-Russian effort would know that they can have their nationals on the moon much earlier if they, instead, throw in with the Artemis Alliance.

Indeed, one might, in a tongue-in-cheek moment, imagine the residents of the American-led lunar base greeting the Chinese and Russian lunar explorers with a cheeky request, “Do you have anything to declare?”

To make that happen will only require President Biden and any subsequent chief executives to maintain support for Project Artemis. Also, Congress should refrain from mucking things up. And there, as they say, is the rub.

Ars Technica reported how Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, could be a problem. It is no secret that she opposes the commercial human landing system. Nevertheless, NASA is all in on going to the moon, at least from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, commercially. How much Johnson will try to derail that approach will determine in part when Americans return to the moon. Her kind of thinking led to the overpriced, behind-schedule Space Launch System. That thinking should be put on the ash heap of history.

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,” and, most recently, “Why is America going back to the Moon.” 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.

Tags China Eddie Bernice Johnson International Lunar Research Station Joe Biden lunar mission NASA Russia Russia-China relations Space race Space travel SpaceX USA

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