Op-Ed | The United States won’t go back to the moon, I’ll follow China there instead

Space
A full moon rises behind the dome of the U.S. Capitol in 2015 in Washington. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In a recent SpaceNews Op-edLouis Friedman, co-founder and executive director emeritus of The Planetary Society, argues that the U.S. should pursue “a policy more directed to Mars and away from commercial participation.”

With all due respect to Friedman, I totally disagree. Focusing NASA programs on distant (in space, time, and money) goals can only ensure that U.S. space policy remains empty talk with no action.

I am persuaded that Mars can wait a bit, and going back to the moon to build a sustainable human presence there is the wise thing to do at this moment. While there’s no solid business case for Mars today, business cases for returning to and start exploiting the moon, with reasonable funding and reasonable expectations of return, are beginning to appear. I recommend reading “The Value of the Moon,” by the late lamented Paul Spudis, for detailed and thorough arguments.

The government should lead the way, and encourage private industry to step in when the time is right. A parallel is found in the history of the internet, which was developed with government funding for decades. Eventually, the first prototype of the web was released (worth noting, by researchers in a large public lab), and solid business cases materialized overnight. Then, commercial players stepped in, and today’s connected world is the result.

According to Friedman, “commercial development of space certainly does not need humans in space,” since robots are good enough. This is wrong, because robots aren’t good enough, otherwise we would have robotic firefighters instead of human firefighters here on Earth.

Also, robots in space don’t stimulate public enthusiasm for space. People in space do. I’ll come back to this point, which I think is a very important one.

Friedman adds that commercial “NewSpace” ventures are mostly interested in being government contractors. This is probably right at this moment, but doesn’t support Friedman’s preference for space programs without commercial participation. On the contrary, it shows that the government must continue to fund ambitious space initiatives until the time is right for industry to step in, which is not quite yet.

In a previous SpaceNews Op-ed, Friedman acknowledged that, if the U.S. doesn’t lead the new race to the Moon, the rest of the world “might find in China an alternative and more reliable leader.” It seems evident indeed that, if the U.S. doesn’t pursue a vigorous lunar exploration, exploitation, and eventually colonization program, China will own the moon.

Criticizing the space policy of the current U.S. administration, centered on a sustainable return to the moon with the next crewed mission to the lunar surface in 2024, Friedman mentions similar space policies of previous administrations, which were quickly abandoned after new elections. Like most democracies, the U.S. administration changes every several years.

Therefore, only bipartisan support can lead to stable space programs. Unfortunately, today the gap between two political camps that hate each other, and are unwilling to negotiate bipartisan agreements for the common good, seems wider than ever in the U.S. and other democracies. This trend, which is likely to continue and even grow stronger, makes achieving bipartisan support for space programs difficult.

But China is not a democracy in the Western sense, and therefore the Chinese space program is much more stable. After the first soft landing of a robotic mission on the far side of the moon, China wants to follow with human astronauts and eventually become the next lunar power.

I am not an American, and the prospect of a China-dominated moon (or, using the title of Kim Stanley Robinson’s very relevant science fiction novel, a “Red Moon”) is not disturbing to me. If China has to take the lead, so be it, and here’s to China. But American politicians and citizens should realize that a Red Moon could have very bad consequences for the U.S. It is, indeed, naive and foolish to hope that a Red Moon wouldn’t result in important economic and geopolitical advantages for China, and military advantages as well.

The colonization of the moon would also result in other advantages, subtler but very powerful in the longer term.

The Apollo program in the 1960s ignited public enthusiasm for space, which hasn’t been the case of later programs such as robotic missions, the space shuttle, and the International Space Station. This shows that human exploration of the moon is uniquely able to foster optimistic visions of a wonderful future.

Optimism is fading out in today’s West, but is alive and well in China. “The China of the present is a bit like America during science fiction’s Golden Age, when science and technology filled the future with wonder,” says Chinese science fiction master Liu Cixin. This optimistic sense of wonder inspired the scientists and engineers who developed today’s technology in the West, and will continue to inspire the development of tomorrow’s technologies.

In the 60s, American kids wanted to be astronauts (or at least scientists and engineers), and kids all over the world looked at America as the promised land of our future in space. I was one of those kids, in Europe. Now I realize that Europe can only be a minor player in a moon colonization program led by other players. I would prefer to follow the U.S., but if the choice is between a Red Moon and no moon, I’ll be happy to follow China to the Red Moon.

Friedman endorses a NASA authorization bill recently introduced by the House Science Committee, which places NASA’s next steps on the moon within the context of a larger “Moon to Mars” program that would send a first a crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2028, instead of 2024, and a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033.

I don’t think delaying the next crewed mission to the lunar surface by four years is a big deal. I never thought 2024 was feasible in the first place, and I’m quite happy with 2028, and Mars to follow. My point is that the colonization of the moon must begin to happen, with human astronauts and in collaboration with commercial partners.

If the U.S. doesn’t offer leadership on the road to space colonization now, beginning with the moon, it’s China that will become the promised land of our future in space. For American kids, too.

Giulio Prisco is a science and technology writer. He is a former analyst at the European Space Agency and a former senior manager in related European institutions.

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