Which countries lead the race to return to the Moon?

Which of the scrabbling superpowers will have one of their own on the moon first?
29 August 2023

Interview with 

Sajjan Gohel, LSE & Isabel Hilton & Scott Lucas, University College Dublin


An astronaut standing on the Moon's surface


Who are the runners and riders in the new Lunar race? Rhys James reports...

Rhys - On the 23rd of August, India announced its arrival as a space superpower, when the Chandrayaan-3 lander touched down on the lunar surface. It means that India is the first country to successfully land a craft near the Moon's South Pole. The nation's prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen grinning and waving a small Indian flag as Chandrayaan-3 made history. 'India is now on the moon', he told mission control, but what might that mean for the country and its space rivals? I asked Sajjan Gohel, who's a visiting teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and host of the NATO Deep Dive podcast to explain the significance of India's soft lunar landing.

Sajjan - India has become the first country to successfully land a spacecraft near the south Pole of the moon. It is a historic moment. This was a cost-effective moon landing, substantially cheaper than the ones conducted by the US, China, and Russia. India was using rockets much less powerful than the US. This was something that was part of a long journey for India's space research organisation, ISRO. And you are now seeing the culmination of that.

Rhys - And how much catching up has India had to do Sajjan? You mentioned that India is competing with these other superpowers, Russia, the United States and China.

Sajjan - Well, India's had a space program for many decades, but it didn't really develop properly until the last 15 years. India has always been viewed by the world in many ways as a junior space fairing state. If India can succeed where others have failed, such as Russia with their Lunar 25 spacecraft crashing into the moon surface, it then signals a new pecking order in space. And certainly it will create the perception of more competition in space, especially with China having launched in May a three person crew, which intends to orbit a space station and hopes to put astronauts on the moon before the end of the decade.

Rhys - What about India's cooperation with its allies? Presumably the likes of Japan, the US and Australia, which along with India make up the Quad Military Alliance will be absolutely delighted with this.

Sajjan - In July, India became the 26th country to sign on to NASA's Artemis Accords, which are Washington's preferred principles for space exploration as more countries aim for the cosmos. So India is aligning more now with the United States when it comes to space exploration. And the US in itself is going to be very interested in what India will make from this recent craft landing on the moon. Because now being in the South Pole, the goal will be to investigate the presence of ice water, which could provide the building blocks of breathable oxygen, drinking water, and even rocket fuel.

Rhys - And does this represent a challenge directly to Beijing? We know obviously China is India's greatest Asian rival, and the nations have enjoyed a turbulent or fractious relationship in recent years.

Sajjan - Certainly it is going to create more competition between India and China. There should be no doubt about that. It will only intensify as the spacecraft of India's landed on the moon, you had the leaders of India and China in Johannesburg, South Africa for the BRICS summit where there were disagreements over BRICS expansion. So those issues are there. The border disputes between India and China continue. And now space exploration is probably yet another example of rivalries that will emerge between India and China.

Rhys - Sajjan Gohel. Now, as Sajjan was just mentioning, India's greatest rival is China, which is pursuing its own ambitious space program. But why exactly is the country's president, Xi Jinping, interested in the moon? I've been speaking to the China expert Isabel Hilton.

Isabel - China started quite late really, but it sent its first satellite into orbit in 1970. And of course the US had already landed an astronaut on the moon by then. But Beijing has put a lot of effort into it, particularly under Xi Jinping, but also in the decade before Xi Jinping. So they first landed on the moon, they landed a rover on the moon in 2013. They were only the third country to manage that. And Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that it's part of what he calls the China dream to make China a big space power. And he has been spending pretty heavily on it since they scored another first by mapping the dark side of the moon. And again, in 2020 they successfully collected rock samples from the moon.

Rhys - And you talk of that Chinese dream of Xi Jinping's. Is there an element of the Chinese politburo that wants to put boots on the moon like the US did in the 1960s?

Isabel - Oh, yes. That has definitely been announced. And I think that a lot of the work that's going on is to do with a further dream, which is to establish a permanent station on the moon. At some point in some capacity. China already has a space station and there is some concern that when the International Space Station is due to retire in 2030, that would leave China holding the reins, if you like, of the only functioning space station. And there is a sense that the moon is part of this desire to establish a kind of permanent presence in space from which China could seek to dominate and military technologies, space-based military technologies, or in dominating the facilities denying access if it chose to. It's a very powerful weapon.

Rhys - Is that ambition part of its geopolitical competition with the United States? Do you think that very much feeds into what Beijing is attempting to do?

Isabel - Undoubtedly. Who does China see as the power that could inhibit its rise, slow its rise, stop its rise. And you know, this is very explicit on both sides. And the United States does want to slow China's technological advancement and China has determined that it will match up to the United States and surpass it in the end. That is what the image of China as a dominant power entails. So space and the moon are very much part of that, in addition to the importance of being in space for communications technologies and for military purposes. If you look at the payloads of Chinese rockets, they're far more military than they are civil.

Rhys - Isabelle Hilton there. So should the US, which remains the only nation to successfully land humans on the moon, be concerned by the recent advances made by Beijing and now New Delhi. Scott Lucas is a professor of American studies at the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin.

Scott - It was the first country to reach the moon, still has the capability to go farther. The Artemis program has the committee goal of returning to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years, In 2024. The US has been one of the leading forces behind the International Space Station, even though that's going to be decommissioned in 2030. And the United States is still a leading force in terms of the military uses of space under the umbrella of space command. But I think more importantly, just the amount of missile and rocket development that they continue to pursue.

Rhys - I wanted to come onto that, because obviously the former president Donald Trump had some interesting ideas, not least the launch of the Space Force. Was that a vanity project or was that a realistic proposition, this idea of creating a military force in space?

Scott - You know space force sounded to me like a Saturday morning kid show, and I'm afraid it did to a lot of professionals that were out there as well. I mean, the US military has been involved in terms of space as the next arena of possible confrontation. You may remember going back to the 1980s with Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program in terms of using lasers to knock down incoming missiles. But what Trump did at the same time that he was reducing the funding for space and lunar exploration for environmental programmes, was like this big shiny military programme which he always liked to hook himself up to, with the idea of space tacked onto it.

Rhys - What role can private enterprise play in space and lunar exploration? We know that America's billionaires have all been getting in on the act. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos...

Scott - It's not really the Musk and the Bezos that I'm looking to. It's the question of the myriad of companies, the myriad of engineering firms, the myriads of firms involved in physics, the myriads of firms involved in geology, involved in other sectors in terms of where you're going to get the industrial manufacturing developments, as well as the movement towards, for example, a green economy, which is gonna pivot in part in terms of what we can do in space, not for the benefit of sending a few people up there to go out and back on a high cost flight, but in terms of sustainable projects that are gonna last over the long term.

Rhys - That was Scott Lucas. So with the new and old kids on the block scrambling to explore the moon and survey its resources, I suppose the next logical question that we need to ask is, can any nation actually lay claim to it? Back to you, Chris.


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