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50 years after Apollo moonshots, will rivalry with China spark a new space race?

Apollo 17 flag
NASA astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands next to the U.S. flag on the moon with Earth hanging in the black sky above during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. (NASA Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An American rivalry with China could stoke a new space race in the years ahead, prominent members of the space community said at a session marking the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo missions.

But it may not play out the way the U.S.-Soviet space race did, said Scott Pace, executive secretary for the White House’s National Space Council. Billionaire-backed space efforts such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin could play a leading role, he said.

“China has billionaires, too,” Pace said today at the ScienceWriters 2018 conference, held at George Washington University. “China has a growing commercial space sector that is not simply People’s Liberation Army guys in new suits, but a commercial industry also emerging out there. And so they are not merely national security competitors, but they’re also potential commercial competitors — as China is in many other areas.”

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, who became the 12th and last person to set foot on the lunar surface in 1972, voiced concern that America was already in “another Cold War” with China.

Pace wouldn’t go that far, however. Even though U.S. military and intelligence officials have voiced concern about the potential for China and Russia to target America’s space assets, he said “we’re not in a Cold War environment.”

“There is a global competition at stake, but it’s a much more multidimensional competition than the Cold War was in the 1960s,” Pace said. “It is happening on multiple levels.”

Pace and Schmitt agreed that the U.S. space effort has suffered under repeated strategy changes in the aftermath of the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew, which led to the retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011. The space program’s objectives have shifted from a return to the moon, to a focus on near-Earth asteroids, to a heightened emphasis on Mars, and then to the current plan for moon missions that eventually point the way to Mars.

The fact that humans haven’t ventured beyond Earth orbit since Schmitt’s mission in 1972 may have contributed to a sense that the glory days of America’s space effort are long past, said Valerie Neal, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum who specializes in space history.

“There are at least two new generations that have been born since the glory days of the 1960s, and they have no direct memory of that, no direct experience,” she said. “The spaceflight that they have known during their formative years has been advertised as ‘routine spaceflight.’ It’s been in Earth orbit rather than out in deeper space.”

The increased commercial involvement in NASA’s renewed push to cislunar space could change that. For example, NASA is expected to announce the first round of awards for commercial lunar payload services by the end of this year.

The White House’s current plan calls for handing over space operations in low Earth orbit to commercial ventures in the mid-2020s, freeing NASA to put the pieces in place for a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway over the same time frame.

“We’ll see humans in orbit around the moon by 2024, and so, soon thereafter, we’ll see humans on the surface,” Pace said. That forecast echoes the timeline put forth by Pace’s boss, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the National Space Council.

2024 meshes with Blue Origin’s plans to have its Blue Moon lunar lander in operation by that time, as well as SpaceX’s plans to have its BFR super-rocket ready to carry passengers around the moon and onward to Mars. NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket could be ready to go by that time as well, although the space agency’s auditors reported last week that the SLS program was not in a good position to hit its schedule and budget targets.

"Apollo Plus 50" panel
Scott Pace, executive secretary for the National Space Council, speaks during a panel discussion also featuring Valerie Neal, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum; and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Sch;mitt. Time Magazine’s Jeffrey Kluger is the moderator. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Schmitt worried that NASA could well find itself lagging behind China. One questioner pointed to China’s Chang’e-5 mission to the moon, which is scheduled for next year and could be the first spacecraft to bring fresh lunar samples back to Earth since Schmitt’s round trip in 1972.

“It’s part of a very intense and major plan to occupy the moon,” Schmitt said. “If we don’t move faster than 2024, Scott, I think you’re going to have Chinese boots on the moon before then.”

Why don’t the U.S. and China work together? For years, Congress has limited bilateral contacts between U.S. and Chinese space officials, due to concerns about Chinese espionage. This month, however, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine met with the head of China’s space program in Germany and floated some ideas for increased cooperation.

Read more: Apollo 17 moonwalker stirs up a buzz with views on climate change

“The issue is not that there’s a ban on cooperation,” Pace said today. “It has to go through some very strict filters, and it has to be overseen, of course, by the Congress. So it can be done, but it requires approval.”

If China does succeed in bringing lunar samples back for study, Pace said it might be possible to arrange a sample exchange program involving moon rocks and soil held by the U.S. and China as well as Russia. “Nothing has been ruled out,” he said.

“The problem with China, as in spaceflight generally, is in establishing levels of trust,” Pace said.

He pointed to the example of a Chinese lunar orbiter, apparently the Chang’e-1 probe, which crashed into the moon’s surface at the end of its mission in 2009. Pace said U.S. scientists put a lot of effort into plans to monitor the cloud of debris thrown up by the impact, but the Chinese didn’t let them know in advance when and where the crash would come.

“This is not the way to build trust,” Pace said. “So, China has some great capabilities. There are some cooperative activities that we could engage in, and I want to engage in. But there has to be a reciprocal balancing with the scientific community.”

GeekWire aerospace and science editor Alan Boyle was the organizer of today’s “Apollo Plus 50” panel session at ScienceWriters 2018. He’s also president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, one of the organizers of the annual ScienceWriters conferences.

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