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The New Age of Space Race

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In the 1950s, the US and Russia engaged in a neck-and-neck race to put a man on the moon. The stakes were high—President Eisenhower knew that whoever lost the race would be at a distinct national security disadvantage. The US formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of landing a man on the moon in 1961, and, eight years after that, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on lunar soil.

While many view that historic landing as the end of the space race, others say the competition is far from over. Are the US, Russia, and China gearing up for round two?

Enter: China

After Russia completed their Luna program in 1976, interest in the moon lapsed until China's Chang'e mission in 2013. While other countries focused on the International Space Station, China became the first country to set a lander on the far side of the moon. Last November, the Chang'e-5 mission successfully brought back lunar samples—the first successful specimen retrieval since the Luna 24 mission in 1976. China's space budget has also grown considerably in recent years as well, surpassing Russia's.

Russia appears to be backing China's efforts. The two countries have recently signed a memorandum of understanding on a lunar station, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). This comes after Russia chose to back away from NASA's Lunar Gateway, criticizing the project as “too US-centric.”


China and Russia's recently opened up the ILRS project to international collaborators. The first phase of the project involves two data-collecting missions slated for 2025. The next, spanning from 2026-2030, will see Luna 28 and Chang'e-8 touch down and the start of construction. The third will span 2030-2035, and will involve multiple missions. The ultimate goal will be to establish a long-term human presence, use native lunar resources, and set up manufacturing on the moon.

Artemis and the Lunar Gateway

The US's Artemis I mission has a proposed launch date of November 2021, with its first lunar landing to take place in 2024, and deployment of a surface lunar outpost, sometime before 2028. China's plans for the ILRS are much more labor- and resource-intensive, and span from 2025-2045. Following these timelines, the Artemis missions would be well underway long before China puts more astronauts on the moon.

Right now, much of the international space community is focused toward expanding humans' presence in our solar system and exploring Mars. The US's Artemis missions are a series of stepping stones toward that goal. One step is the deployment of a small space station in lunar orbit, called the Lunar Gateway. This station will serve as a laboratory, communication hub, holding area, and temporary living space. If all goes according to plan, the Lunar Gateway will be operational by 2024. After this, in the 2030s, the Orion capsule from previous Artemis missions may be used for manned flights to Mars.

Privatizing the Aerospace Industry

In the beginning, the first space race was essentially a competition between official government agencies. Today, there's been a resurgence in aerospace innovation largely spearheaded by private companies. SpaceX made history with the first private manned launch into orbit, delivering two astronauts to the International Space Station using a Falcon 9 rocket. The US, once dependent on Russian rockets to launch crew and supplies into space, has access to cheaper domestic rockets. Some rockets may even be reusable in the near future. Whoever does a better job of courting private aerospace companies could very well end up with a distinct advantage here.

With so many long term goals in sight, it's difficult to say who's poised to win the space race—or if one is, indeed, happening. China and Russia's plans for the ILRS are ambitious, but don't conflict with the purpose, timeline, or proposed operation of the Lunar Gateway. With so many countries and international programs focused on Mars, it's likely that more collaboration is needed for humans to set foot on the red planet. For now, it will be interesting to see how having a robust private aerospace sector will change how the race to the moon plays out.