Rivals in space
China and Russia team up to tackle the moon
After decades of cooperation between the United States and Russia in space, the Kremlin seems to have found a new interstellar partner. The space agencies for Russia and China on March 9 announced plans to construct a first-of-its-kind moon base dedicated to science. The two countries signed a memorandum bringing Russia into a pre-existing Chinese project to create the International Lunar Research Station at the south pole of the moon. The two hope to host short- and long-term scientific crews at the base within a few decades.
After the fall of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of the Cold War, a cash-strapped Roscosmos—the Russian Federation’s space agency—turned to NASA for support. The two great space-faring nations teamed up with Japan, Europe, and Canada to launch the International Space Station in 1998. After tragedies grounded NASA’s remaining shuttle fleet, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft ferried Americans to the ISS.
But that era of cooperation may be coming to an end. By signing onto China’s lunar project, Russia foreclosed involvement in an American-led effort to create a lunar research station in the moon’s orbit. NASA is leading an international project with Japanese, Canadian, and European Union space agencies to create a station named Gateway. The agency expects work to begin in 2024. Gateway is part of NASA’s efforts to return humans to the moon and then eventually send manned missions to Mars.
Until recently, Gateway organizers had planned a role for Russia, too. But in October, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin poured cold water on the partnership. “In our view, the lunar Gateway in its current form is too U.S.-centric, so to speak,” Rogozin told reporters at a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress on Oct. 12. “Russia is likely to refrain from participating in it on a large scale.”
Meanwhile, China has been ramping up its activity in space. The nation kicked off its Chang’e missions with a lunar orbiter launched in 2007. The China National Space Agency successfully landed a rover on the moon in 2013. On Dec. 16, the Chang’e 5 mission returned 4.4 pounds of rock and dust—the first lunar material brought to Earth since 1976. Chinese space officials have been talking about leading an international effort to create a lunar base since at least 2019. By 2020, they had named the station and started actively looking for partners.
Now that Russia is officially working with China, it likely won’t be involved with Gateway at all. Roscosmos plans to use at least a portion of its 2025 Luna 27 mission to help make China’s station a reality. China plans to haul equipment for the base to the moon’s pole aboard Chang’e missions slated for 2023, 2024, and 2027. That would set the stage later for short-term crewed trips. Chinese officials aren’t expecting to have a long-term manned lunar base established until 2036 or later.
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