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NASA boss says US may lose latest space race with China

Beijing could dent Yank efforts to colonize Moon if it gets there first

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson believes China could control territory and resources on the Moon if it lands astronauts and builds critical infrastructure before the US.

Founded just under 30 years ago, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) has made incredible progress in space exploration. It sent the first-ever lander to the far side of the Moon, became the second space agency to successfully land a rover on Mars, and just finished building the Tiangong space station. 

Like NASA, the CNSA also has ambitions to send astronauts and build a research facility on the Moon with the goal of venturing deeper in the Solar System, visiting Mars and maybe beyond. But it's not clear whether China will be cooperative with the US in sharing space and resources as both countries try to search for water ice and valuable minerals on the Moon, according to NASA's boss.

"It is a fact: we're in a space race," Nelson said in an interview with Politico.

"And it is true that we better watch out that they don't get to a place on the Moon under the guise of scientific research. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, 'Keep out, we're here, this is our territory,'" he warned. 

Under the Artemis program, NASA is planning to send the first woman and next man to the Moon after more than half a century by 2024. The first crewless mission launched on 15 November to test the heavy-vehicle Space Launch System and the Orion lunar capsule. All systems were successful in placing Orion in a lunar orbit for nearly a month, and returning the spacecraft to Earth.

But NASA's achievements in the program so far are plagued with multiple delays. The US Government Accountability Office has repeatedly reported that NASA has overblown the budget for Artemis, and has fallen behind schedule for a number of reasons, including contracting woes and manufacturing delays. Under the Trump Administration, NASA set its goal of sending the next crew of astronauts to the Moon by 2024, but is not expected to get there until 2025 at the earliest.

Nelson warned NASA should not fall behind its rivals and that the next two years were crucial for gaining a foothold on the Moon.

"China within the last decade has had enormous success and advances," he said. "It is also true that their date for landing on the moon keeps getting closer and closer…there are only so many places on the South Pole of the Moon that are adequate for what we think, at this point, for harvesting water and so forth," he added.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, however, downplayed claims of competition. 

"Some US officials have spoken irresponsibly to misrepresent the normal and legitimate space endeavors of China," Liu told Politico.

"The exploration and peaceful uses of outer space is humanity's common endeavor and should benefit all. China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space, opposes the weaponization of and arms race in outer space, and works actively toward building a community with a shared future for mankind in the space domain. Outer space is not a wrestling ground."  

China and the US have both signed the Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement led by the United Nations, promising peaceful exploration of the Moon and beyond. Over 100 countries have pledged to follow the treaty's guidelines, which state that outer space is free for exploration and use for all parties and that no weapons of mass destruction can be placed in orbit or on celestial bodies. ®

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