The head of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) warned in a recent interview that China could very well claim to resource-rich locations on the moon.
In an interview with Politico, published Sunday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said China is catching up in space as the U.S. is racing to return to the moon.
“It is a fact: we’re in a space race,” the former Florida senator and astronaut told 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.”
Nations landing on the moon could soon begin laying claim to key territories. The south pole of the Moon, for example, is expected to be highly contested as key water deposits are suspected in that region. Such deposits could be used to produce rocket fuel.
Earlier this year, Nelson shared his concerns that China may try to assert territorial claims on key parts of the moon’s surface.
“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory,’” Nelson told Politico.
To underscore his concerns, Nelson cited the earthly example of China asserting territorial claims over portions of the South China Sea like the Spratly Islands, establishing military bases to defend its territorial claims.
The U.S. is working towards a return to the lunar surface with the Artemis series of moon missions. The Artemis moon missions are a successor to the Apollo moon missions. The last manned moon mission, Apollo 17, took place more than 50 years ago.
In November, the U.S. launched the Artemis 1 mission. The first Artemis mission was a 25-day uncrewed Moon-orbiting mission.
The Artemis 2 mission, which is scheduled for May of 2024 will see a crew of four NASA astronauts aboard an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) perform a manned flyby of the moon. The Artemis 3 mission, which is planned to launch at some point in 2025, will see a human crew actually land on the moon’s surface.
While the U.S. plans to have a manned crew land on the moon by 2025, China also has ambitions to put humans on the moon before 2030.
Any delays in U.S. plans to return to the moon could allow China to get there first.
“It’s entirely possible they could catch up and surpass us, absolutely,” Space Force Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno told Reuters in November.
For the time being, Nelson expressed confidence that NASA can meets its goals to complete the Artemis missions on schedule.
“All of that is going to depend on two things,” Nelson told Politico. “The space suits, are they ready? And is SpaceX ready? And I ask the question every day: ‘How is SpaceX’s progress? And all of our managers are telling me they are meeting all of their milestones.”
China has also described goals to begin building key pieces of space infrastructure to support future space missions, such as on-orbit servicing systems. The Chinese government has also described aspirations to develop systems of governance in space.
Terry Virts, a former commander of the International Space Station (ISS) and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel told Politico that China’s presence on the moon could also interfere in any moon missions launched by other nations.
“There is potentially mischief China can do on the moon,” Virts said. “If they set up infrastructure there they could potentially deny communications, for example. Having them there doesn’t make things easier. There is real concern about Chinese meddling.”