China and Russia are committed to collaborating on lunar colonisation, joining the tier of corporate titans and governments who recognize space is not only the last frontier, but a geopolitical endgame.
The world is in the grips of a new space race, nearly 52 years after the first.
In the 20th century, the world saw its first space race between Cold War superpowers, as the United States and Soviet Union first competed to build the best intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload. The fierce missile competition would bleed over into a race to see who could make it to space, and the moon first.
The competition between global powers is back on as Russia and China announced a strategic agreement between Russian and Chinese space agencies on March 23 to build an international science station on the moon together.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency and China’s National Space Administration emphasized their commitment to cooperating with “all international partners”, and their respect for “parity distribution of rights and obligations.”
But for China at least, a latecomer to the original space race, this is the largest space endeavour it’s ever taken. Its cooperation with Russia is essential to getting the project off the ground, and into orbit. The details of the agreement bring cooperation at nearly every level, including planning, design, development, and execution not to mention running the lunar station.
For many, this move brings China deeper into Russia’s political orbit, following earlier commitments to cooperate on spaceship development in November 2017.
The announcement drew concern in the United States, given that China and Russia have yet to sign NASA’s Artemis Accords in 2020. The landmark accords, signed by 8 spacefaring nations, commit to the peaceful exploration of the solar system, including Mars, the moon, and the asteroid belt.
Russia refused to sign the accords, after Dmitry Rogozin, Roscosmos director, criticized them as too political.
“They see their program not as international, but similar to NATO,” Rogozin told a Russian magazine.
“There is America, everyone else must help and pay. To be honest, we are not interested in participating in such a project,” he adds.
China struck back aggressively at NASA’s Artemis Accords, describing it as an “Enclosure Movement”, seeking “colonisation and claiming sovereignty over the moon”.
The moon, no longer the barren rock, is changing into a priceless gateway outpost for the earth. No longer just a symbol of a nation’s proficiency in spaceflight, the moon offers water ice, solar power, and rare elements such as platinum, titanium, scandium and yttrium.
The Chinese space administration has taken notice of this, with one report detailing a $10 trillion return on investments from an Earth-Moon economic zone planned for 2050. China’s plan to set up a base on the moon dates back to 2002.
Aside from its economic wealth, the moon is also envisioned as a refuelling station. Whoever can build the first fuel refinement facility on the moon, will be able to refuel or even build rockets in space, giving them unfettered access to the remainder of the solar system.
Chinese scientists made plans to use lunar water and ice to create propellant, while relying on the ease of launching spacecraft from the moon (22 times less gravity) to turn the moon into a springboard for further expansion.
China plans to build a permanent presence on the moon by 2036. Russia ambitiously plans to begin resource extraction after first building a lunar base in a decades-long plan between 2025 and 2040.
The colonisation of the moon will have deep ramifications for earth’s geopolitics and economy.
Promising returns in the trillions of dollars, the new source of unparalleled wealth will give governments deeper pockets for spending, and is expected to usher in a new era of military build-up and technological development as countries square off to protect their new economic lifelines.
For some countries, the race is about proving their ascendancy overall. China aims to become the world’s foremost space power by 2045, right before the People’s Republic’s 100th year anniversary. China and Russia have both expressed opposition to the freehand given to private interests in space, fearing commercialization and the rise of new megacorporations worth trillions of dollars.
Money from money
Privatized or not, most of the world’s countries are likely to be adversely affected.
Companies like Planetary Resources, founded as early as 2012, were quickly joined by Deep Space Industries and dozens of others hoping for a slice of the pie.
The growth of private space resource companies is backed by pro-establishment banks like Goldman Sachs, one of a handful of banks able to finance projects of this magnitude.
A report by Goldman Sachs believes fervently in the lucrative profit asteroid mining promises. The endeavour has a high “psychological barrier”, but isn’t difficult in terms of “actual financial and technological barriers”, it reports.
A university of California Technology study says that mining an asteroid would cost roughly $2.6 billion. That’s not much higher than most NASA missions. Even a rare mineral mine on earth needs around $1 billion in set-up costs. But one football field-sized asteroid in space could contain as much as $50 billion in rare earth minerals alone.
This could have devastating effects on the earth’s economy. While the space resources will undoubtedly lead to the creation of entirely new careers, the glut of rare earth minerals previously valuable because they are finite could end up crashing rare earth markets altogether.
If that doesn’t happen, countries without access to space mining programs are going to be left far behind countries and private companies that have reached a multi-planetary status, able to leverage off-world income. For many, this promises an era of monopoly and unfair competition.
For successful companies like SpaceX, international law is vague about what it takes to claim a planet as your own. Deeper ethical issues arise, including whether an employer has the right to control reproduction in hostile space environments. Another pressing question is what separates colonial employees from indentured labourers, with future Martian settlers likely facing a one-way ticket in exchange for a lifetime of labour. More critically, if Mars is settled by a private company, what kind of government will it use, if any?
Geopolitically, space resource mining also promises economic supremacy to a few nations over the vast majority of earth, bringing near limitless pockets to a tiny minority, and with it concentrated power in a way humanity has never experienced before.
In the US, the new frontier is finally within reach, after a generation of private spaceflight companies has lowered the bottom line by introducing reusable, self-landing rockets. At the forefront is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, driving down industry costs by an order of magnitude while still proving to be an incredibly lucrative industry to the multimillionaire.
The US government’s Space Shuttle cost a prohibitive $60,000 to take one kilogram into low-earth orbit. In sharp contrast, SpaceX has driven the cost down to $784 per kilogram with its efficient and reusable Falcon 9 rocket. It’s a bigger rocket, nearing the end of its development, aims to bring that cost down to $50 per kilogram. That aims to be less expensive than most international delivery services, promising a revolution in spaceflight.
Meanwhile, multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos has also taken a step back from Amazon, to focus on other projects including Blue Origin, a rival spaceflight company that succeeded in creating its own reusable, self-landing rockets as well.
Blue Origin lags behind SpaceX and orbital transportation contracts, missing out on a multi-billion dollar deal to deliver US military and security launches in 2022. The contract was picked up by SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance, featuring aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corporations.
Succeeding where states couldn’t, SpaceX and Blue Origin are in a fight to win the rights for a multi-billion dollar contract to build the moon lander needed for NASA’s bid to return to the moon.
NASA is expected to announce the dates for its second moon landing mission by April 2021, but its mission is expected to occur in 2024.
Whether Blue Origin succeeds in winning the contract or not, private sector activity is at its highest as a new breed of American companies eye the void for varying reasons.
Bezos is angling to sell high atmosphere tourist trips to space, satellite delivery, and a lander. This puts it in direct competition with Virgin Galactic, which also adopted a tourism-heavy business model. SpaceX on the other hand, has its eyes set on the colonisation of Mars, while welcoming a lunar base that could serve as a staging point for humanity’s spread throughout the solar system.
Not to be left out, space mining companies are also lining up for the opening of the new frontier. Their hopes are pinned on companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin further driving down the costs of taking mining equipment into space.
If SpaceX’s largest rocket passes testing, it will immediately put Elon Musk in the position of being able to directly tap into incredible mineral wealth, while opening the door for private investment in the new space race. For Russia and China, they’re already late to the game and catching up is a matter of survival.
The sentiment is echoed across the world, with more nations joining the spacefaring club, including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.