(Antfer) #1
8 Scientific American, July 2019


Illustration by Matt Harrison Clough


the Moon

Do not make the U.S.’s lunar return
an international clash
By the Editors

Just in time for the half-century anniversary of the Apollo 11
lunar landing [see our special report, starting on page 50], the
White House has declared the U.S. is going back to the moon
within the next five years. “The first woman and the next man on
the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by Ameri-
can rockets, from American soil,” said Vice President Mike Pence
during remarks in late March at the U.S. Space  & Rocket Center
in Huntsville, Ala.
There are reasons to be skeptical. Chief among them is the
potential for Congress to balk at funding what some might con-
sider a political stunt. According to the Trump administration,
however, the urgency borders on being existential: China is now
poised to “seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the
world’s preeminent spacefaring nation,” Pence said. But such a
jingoistic stance carries risks of its own, possibly isolating the U.S.
from international collaborations in otherworldly exploration.
China has already achieved a first by landing a rover on the
moon’s far side this past January. And later this year it is set to
conduct its first robotic lunar sample-return mission. Zhang Keji-
an, head of China’s national space agency, confirmed in April that
these missions are precursors to human landings perhaps a
decade hence. Such missions could support China’s plans for a
research station near the lunar south pole to study resources such
as water ice, which can be used to manufacture rocket fuel, pota-
ble water and breathable air. The fear in the White House, it
seems, is that China will lay claim to the lunar pole and prevent
the U.S. and others from operating there. (This action is essential-
ly prohibited under the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of
1967, to which both China and the U.S. are signatories.)
There are good reasons to treat China as an adversary in space,
but these moon plans are not among them. China’s use of antisat-
ellite missiles and spacecraft does pose significant threats to stra-
tegic U.S. assets (while mirroring decades of similar efforts by the
U.S. and Russia). Such concerns do not require framing nasa’s
planned lunar return as part of a warlike conflict with China. As
the crown jewel of the U.S. civil space program, the agency is
ostensibly devoted to science and exploration instead of national
defense. Although it emerged from the cold war–fueled space race
of the late 1950s, nasa has more recently been defined by collabo-
ration, not competition—most notably, in its partnerships with
Russia and other nations on the International Space Station,
which has served for decades to defuse geopolitical tensions.
The U.S. and China are not the only spacefaring nations with
ambitious plans for lunar missions—plans that rely on varying

degrees of international collaboration. Europe—a key partner in
nasa’s exploration efforts—is leading the push for a multinational
“Moon Village” and is working with Russia on a lander. India also
intends to put a lander and rover (along with a nasa-built instru-
ment) at the lunar south pole. Japan, a regular U.S. partner in
space science, is pursuing a lunar lander as well. Israel has already
made one landing attempt with help from nasa’s deep-space com-
munications network and may soon make another. In the context
of a return to the moon, a similar degree of cooperation with Chi-
na would be valuable—except that Congress has placed severe
restrictions on nasa’s ability to collaborate with the Chinese.
Sending nasa to the moon to beat China would not be the first
time the administration has sought to extend President Donald
Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” mantra into out-
er space. Trump has previously vowed to aggressively develop
space-based missile defense systems and to create a “Space Force”
as a sixth branch of the U.S. military. Both proposals have been
framed as part of an unfolding clash of civilizations in which the
U.S. and its allies must act decisively in space to overcome China
and other adversaries, such as Russia and North Korea.
In the long term, however, this stance will most likely be self-
defeating because it reinforces the impression, eagerly promul-
gated by China and Russia, that the biggest threat to the peaceful
use of outer space is really the U.S. To ensure that our nation’s val-
ues are enshrined in space governance, the White House and
Congress must together reduce needless barriers to engagement
with China and other competitors, ideally through reinvigorated
U.S. diplomacy within the framework of existing U.N. treaties and
committees. Collaboration, not conflict, is the sustainable path
forward to the moon.

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