Political authorities in the United States have been concerned about Chinese missions on the Moon, fearing that they could be used for espionage purposes.
While the United States continues to discuss NASA’s budget for the next fiscal year and its future lunar missions, China has stood out with its Chang’e missions, especially the most recent, which landed on the far side of the Moon in 2019. And it seems that some American politicians are concerned about possible Chinese “space espionage”.
A version of NASA’s next budget bill, passed in late January, requires the National Security Council “to coordinate an assessment of the People’s Republic of China’s space exploration capabilities”, including “any threat to the assets of United States in space”. It also requires an assessment of China’s plans to partner with other countries.
Among those concerned with espionage is Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado. He said in February that if China has a permanent presence on the Moon, it could cause problems for the United States. One argument is that China does not separate its scientific space programs from the military. In the case of the USA, NASA is a civilian agency.
When reports emerged in October that China was building a spacecraft that, according to sources, would be able to transport humans to the Moon, some Americans feared that switching from robotic to human missions could result in the militarization of the lunar soil.
But an expert on China’s space program says the Chinese plans, which include the fifth Chang’e mission, do not appear to be a military threat. “It may, in the opinion of some Americans, present some kind of geopolitical or psychological challenge,” said Gregory Kulacki, project manager at Union of Concerned Scientists. “But I find it difficult to see how a Chinese moon landing is threatening the United States or any other nation.”
Cooperation is unlikely
Kulacki goes further and says the United States should consider collaborating with China in space. This is unlikely – the US Congress has forbidden NASA to cooperate with China without prior approval since 2011. Nor does China seem interested in siding with the United States, especially considering that China’s current plans are based on something from the 1980s called Project 921. This project required that a Chinese skill – not a multinational skill – could send a person into orbit around the Earth.
China won’t get there before NASA, even if they wanted to
There is no indication, however, that China is actually planning to send taikonauts (Chinese astronauts) to the Moon. So far, plans to send people into space follow Project 921, meaning the idea of launching taikonauts into Earth’s orbit. And if China shifts its focus to a manned mission to the Moon, they won’t get there as fast as NASA, which plans to land on the lunar surface in 2024.
Therefore, there is no reason to think that a Chinese human landing will take place between 2021 and 2026, according to Dean Cheng, an Asian Studies researcher at the Heritage Foundation. It’s just that Long March 5, China’s launch rocket, which was supposed to be used for human missions on the Moon, has not yet been approved to transport people.
A manned lunar mission will only be possible in the late 2020s, said Cheng, but it would be “extraordinarily ambitious” as China currently launches people into Earth orbit once every two years and has not gathered detailed information about the human performance in space. This information would be vitally important for a mission to the Moon.
Thus, Cheng concludes that a manned Chinese lunar mission should only take place between 2031 and 2035. “But that is Dean Cheng’s opinion. There is no official Chinese policy,” he said.