US will beat China to the Moon, says NASA chief

The Japanese are reliable partners in this mission.
Ameya Paleja
Bill Nelson.
Bill Nelson.

Getty Images 

Even before NASA's Artemis I mission successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, NASA chief Bill Nelson was preparing for the next phase of the mission, of sending crewed missions to the Moon. In an interview with Nikkei, Nelson said that the U.S. was very much in a race with China to do so and was confident of reaching there before the Chinese.

On Sunday afternoon, the uncrewed Orion capsule of the Artemis I mission completed its 1.4 million miles (2.3 million km) journey to the Moon and back and splashed down 100 miles off the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

While details on how the spacecraft performed during its 25.5-day trip are still not public, an incident-free launch and recovery mean that NASA can largely stick to its schedule for sending crewed missions next and landing on the Moon before 2026. The last time U.S. astronauts went to the Moon, they were competing with Russia. This time around, it is China that is looking to achieve the same goals.

China's Moon missions

The Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) has been heading the Chinese Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP), which is more commonly known as the Chang'e Project. Consisting of orbiters, landers, rovers, and sample return missions, the project saw its first spacecraft launch in 2007 and also aims for a crewed mission before the end of the decade.

Like NASA's Artemis Program, the Chang'e project also aims to set up a base station on the South Pole of the Moon, and it will therefore be crucial to see who reaches there first. Like NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), China too, is building its own version of a megarocket, IEEE Spectrum said in a report.

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While there is no doubt that the U.S. is far ahead of China, the Asian country has a reputation for catching up very quickly, as it has done with fighter jets and electric vehicles in the recent past. It is hardly a surprise then that former senator and now NASA administrator Nelson is wary of China's presence in this space.

Partners with Japan, not China

In the interview with Nikkei, Nelson was clear that China showed no intentions of partnering with the U.S. in the Moon missions. Instead, the Asian country was very secretive about its space intentions and was disappointed that the CNSA did not divulge details of where the debris from its rocket launch would end up, something that has occurred multiple times in the past couple of years.

In contrast, China's Asian neighbor Japan is a trusted partner in the U.S. plans to reach the Moon. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Toyota Motors have been working on a lunar rover that astronauts will be able to use during the Artemis missions, and Japan is providing life support systems for the Gateway Space Station that will orbit the Moon. When ready, a Japanese astronaut is expected to be stationed at the station.

Unlike China, which prefers to work solo, the U.S. and Japan are working on a framework that will allow the countries to cooperate on more space projects and, once negotiated, will pave the way for a Japanese astronaut to land on the Moon as well.

Nelson is confident that the U.S. mission will be completed as per the current schedule and that U.S. astronauts will reach the South Pole of the Moon before 2026.