Congressional leaders on Wednesday warned of consequences the US and its allies may face if they lose the new race to the moon, as the National American Space Agency announced delays to its crewed Artemis missions.
Their worries were largely directed at efforts by China to forge its own space dominance and land astronauts on the moon in the next decade.
“The Chinese Communist Party is actively soliciting international partners for a lunar mission, a lunar research station, and has stated its ambition to have human astronauts on the surface by 2030,” Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma said at a Science, Space, and Technology House Committee hearing about the Artemis project.
“The country that lands first will have the ability to set a precedent for whether future lunar activities are conducted with openness and transparency, or in a more restricted manner,” said Lucas, chairman of the committee.
He and other House representatives said they were concerned by the delays from NASA, which said on January 9 that its Artemis 2 launch — which aims to send US astronauts to the moon — would be postponed from November 2024 to September 2025.
NASA wants to fix issues before launch
The Artemis missions comprise NASA’s modern attempt to return to the moon, more than 50 years since Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on the lunar surface.
Its first launch was an uncrewed test flight in 2022, while its second launch, now scheduled for 2025, will send four astronauts around the moon but not on it. A third mission, now delayed from 2025 to September 2026, would finally put American crews on the surface.
NASA said it’s had to delay the missions because it first needs to fix issues with its spacecraft’s heat shield, which protects crews from extreme temperatures as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
The space agency said it’s also working on problems with the craft’s life support system and emergency ejection system, which jettisons the crew capsule away from the rocket if needed.
James Free, associate administrator at NASA, said at the delay announcement that safety is the agency’s “number one priority.”
“And we will launch when we are ready,” he said.
However, Mike Griffin, a former chief of NASA, cast doubt on the agency’s prediction that it could launch its man-on-the-moon mission in September 2026.
“The Artemis circumlunar mission is, I think, very doable on the timescale that NASA has said,” said Griffin, who was NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009. “I don’t think Artemis 3, the landing mission, is at all realistically scheduled.”
Lawmakers foresee doom if China wins
Congressional leaders on Wednesday acknowledged safety as a priority but repeatedly expressed nervousness over the delays.
“It’s no secret that China has a goal to surpass the United States by 2045 as global leaders in space. “We can’t let this happen,” GOP Rep. Rich McCormick from Georgia said. Not just the economy, but technologies that can benefit humankind.
“Whoever controls space will control the destiny of this Earth,” Republican Rep. Bill Posey of Florida said, calling space the “ultimate military high ground.”
“I support Artemis,” said Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. “But I want it to be successful, especially with China at our heels.”
NASA, however, has said that even with the delays, it should be comfortably ahead of China’s national space agency.
“I think that China has a very aggressive plan,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on January 9. I think that they’d like to land ahead of us, because it might be a PR coup. But the fact is that I don’t think they will.”
China intends to be the second country, with the US being the first and so far only, to land astronauts on the moon, as part of its push to become a significant space power.
Beijing has announced plans to establish a lunar base on the moon’s south pole by 2040 and have it fully operational by 2050.
Its lead-up to the lunar base involves crewed flights to the moon via its Chang’e missions, which China opened to international collaboration in October 2023.
“We firmly believe that the spring of China’s space science has arrived, and we have the determination, confidence, and ability to resolutely complete the mission,” said Maj. Gen. Jing Haipeng, a Chinese astronaut serving as a mission commander, per the Associated Press.
Nelson, the NASA chief, told Politico in January 2023 that the world “better watch out” for China’s spacefaring efforts.
“It is a fact: We’re in a space race,” he said.