China and Russia Are Building a Lunar Space Station

Looks like NASA's Gateway program has a new rival.
Brad Bergan

China and Russia just signed an agreement to construct and work on an "International Scientific Lunar Station" orbiting the Moon, according to statements from both countries' space agencies on Tuesday.

Russia elects not to join NASA's Gateway program

This comes on the heels of months of talks between the two space powers, as Russia considered joining NASA's Gateway program — a rival lunar space station on schedule for construction by a gigantic coalition of other countries and private entities during the coming decade.

China and Russia's forthcoming International Scientific Lunar Station will be "a complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in orbit of the Moon," read a Roscosmos statement, in a report from The Verge. The project will aim to offer support to a wide scope of research experiments "with the possibility of long-term unmanned operation with the prospect of a human presence on the moon."

Similar to NASA, China has fielded international support for its own ambitions for placing infrastructure on the moon — in addition to sending numerous robotic Chang'e missions to the lunar satellite, which accomplished the first landing on the far side of the moon, and executed a sample retrieve mission last December.

Russia's Space Chief Dmitry Rogozin and China's Space Chief Zhang Kejian signed the lunar space station agreement virtually, which comes as the latest effort from Beijing to explore the moon — much like NASA, which isn't allowed to work with China via a law Congress passed in 2011.

By contrast, Russia has had a decades-long partnership with NASA on the International Space Station — but has hesitated to extend this relationship with the U.S. to the moon.

Russia deemed NASA's proposal for joint efforts on Lunar Gateway 'impractical'

NASA ramped up its efforts to return astronauts to the moon during the Trump administration via the Artemis program. This included a multilateral pact called the Artemis Accords — which set out universal standards of behavior in space. 

So far, nine additional countries signed the Artemis Accords. But not Russia, since the U.S. tried to exclude Moscow from initial discussions on the Accords in 2020.

However, NASA has finalized agreements with Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency for efforts on the Lunar Gateway — the forthcoming space station due to orbit the moon. NASA asked Russia to join in the construction efforts of building that station, but Moscow found NASA's request for Russia to build an airlock for Gateway "impractical," according to a Roscosmos spokesperson, reports The Verge.

"NASA presented the Russian-American Memorandum of Understanding to Roscosmos concerning the cooperation within the Gateway project," said the spokesperson. "The MoU suggested that Roscosmos commits to provide a crew airlock module."

"After studying the draft document, the participation of the Russian side to the volume suggested by the U.S. partners was deemed impractical," the spokesperson added. Later, Russia switched gears on the international stage, and looked at China's ambitions for the moon.

Shifting the balance of power in space

This latest China-Russia agreement will see the two nations develop their own lunar space station, which involves "planning, demonstration, design, development, implementation, and operation of scientific research station projects, including project promotion to the international aerospace community," read the China National Space Administration's statement.

While it remains to be seen what specific technical services Russia will make — a country facing a climate of systemic budgetary challenges — its budget for space ventures ranks third in the world, behind the U.S. and China.

As international collaborations go, this latest one between China and Russia could reshape the future of space travel — not only by building a presence on or near the moon independent of the NASA-led coalition of countries and entities surrounding the Artemis Accords, but also in giving newcomer nations to the space age a second option, upon deciding which major space powers to join.

This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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