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Houston has a new problem – Beijing has fired the starter pistol on Space Race 2.0 with the launch of the Chang’e-5 lunar prob

China’s latest interstellar mission is already ruffling feathers at NASA as efforts to establish the first major technological foothold on the Moon begin in earnest.

In October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first ever artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. It was a revolutionary breakthrough, setting off a political shock in the United States known as the “Sputnik Moment” which fired the starter pistol in the Space Race, an era of technological competition between the US and the USSR, leading to enormous advancements in the field. This ideological and geopolitical competition changed the world and sent man amongst the stars. But who would have imagined this kind of thing happening again, a new round of interstellar rivalry between two powers?

As tensions surge between the United States and China, especially in the realm of technology, the stage is set for a new space race, not just in theory but in practice. Beijing, of course, doesn’t start on a level footing; it’s rather new to the game, but that doesn’t stop it being ambitious. On Tuesday, China launched its long awaited Chang’e-5 lunar exploration mission, a probe which aims to bring back the first Moon rock samples to Earth since the 1970s. The galactic grand prix is back on.

Whilst this mission follows in the US and USSR’s lunar footprints, this is less a game of catch up for Beijing as it is a launchpad towards new things. China aspires to establish a robotic base on the Moon by 2030, dubbed a “Lunar Palace.” The race towards new space advancements and research also comes at a time when the militarization of space is increasingly on the agenda with several countries considering new “space commands.” If a new space race is on the way, undoubtedly this isn’t going to be about just about ideological pride, it will be about a new strategic frontier, and China is ready for it.

US Space Force is aimed at China

In 2019, when the Trump administration announced the creation of a US Space Force,” it was, not surprisingly, widely mocked especially for appearing to copy a Star Trek logo, but the ridicule clouded people’s judgement on what actually is a serious strategic consideration for America. Space matters and as technology advances, it increasingly has a military dynamic to it. Whilst we aren’t talking (yet) about Death Stars and starfighter dog fights in galaxies far, far away, the concept of space being invoked in combat through satellites and missile technology is increasingly real. The United Kingdom has also moved to consider the final frontier a new strategic domain.

America’s defense community seem to believe that China is a threat and are, in turn, aiming to militarize space. As with the broader technology war against Beijing, the US is concerned at China’s rising capabilities and its subsequent ambitions, irrespective as to whether they are truly of a military nature or not. And Washington is right to be as, in this field, China’s advances have been rapid. Consider that China National Space Administration was only created in 1993, making it not even 30 years old, whereas NASA is more than double its age. Similarly, China’s Moon program only began in 2004, yet it has already became the first country to reach the far side of the Moon. Now within this decade, it’s talking about manned landings and a robotic base.

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The race to set up a base on the Moon

Not surprisingly, the Moon is again at the center of the latest leg of the space race. The goal this time isn’t just reaching it, like the space race of old, but to establish robot and human bases there which will not only be a historical breakthrough, but a strategic boon for the country who gets there first. The Apollo missions were a novelty, showing that man could reach the Moon and study it, but this new competition is about using the Moon for communications and military purposes.

While China openly seeks to establish a base there, so does NASA, with the latter already having 2024 in the diary as the date for the first manned mission to the Moon since 1972. NASA has already selected Nokia to build the first ever cellular network on the Moon, a network of which is going to be strategically priceless, and they aren’t about to give that privilege to Huawei are they? Thus, China’s focus on the Moon and the Chang’e-5 missions are part of putting the country on a strategic trajectory to catch up with the US as fast as possible and ultimately see who can establish the most advanced foothold on the Moon first.

In conclusion, the new space race is here, but the game is entirely different to the old one, and the outcomes have big consequences. Whilst the USA and USSR rivaled each other for the prestige of stepping out into the unknown for the first time, this new competition has added the strategic dynamic of who can maximize space to their own strategic advantage first. Just as they were in the 1960s, all eyes have once again turned to the Moon as the biggest prize. China might be beginning from an underdog position, but their rapid ascendency in space technology has got Washington worried, and if a severely disadvantaged USSR could hold its own against America in the cosmos, who knows what lies ahead…

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