08/03/2024 09:41 AM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By Collins Chong Yew Keat

The first return to the Moon for the United States in more than half a century with the touchdown of Odysseus by Texas-based company Intuitive Machines near the moon’s south pole on Feb 22 marked the first ever achieved by the private sector.

This serves as a significant hallmark for the Americans, as the race to the Moon and the larger space race are back on the radar and intensified, with geopolitical ramifications.

This touchdown brings back the grand old milestones of the space victory during the Cold War for the Americans, and boosted the prospects of a planned return of astronauts there later this decade.

The uncrewed six-legged robot lander, Odysseus, came as the Japanese, Chinese and Indians have all tried to boast of their similar achievements over the past years.

To date, spacecraft from just four other countries have ever landed on the moon – the former Soviet Union, China, India and just last month, Japan. The United States remains the only one ever to have sent humans to the lunar surface.

This feat is the first under NASA’s Artemis lunar programme, as the United States races to return astronauts to the Moon before China lands its own crewed spacecraft there. It symbolises the power and promise of NASA’s commercial partnerships.

Long-term lunar exploration

The crewed Artemis in late 2026 is part of long-term lunar exploration, serving as a stepping stone towards eventual human flights to Mars.

The landing site on the moon’s south pole is based on the presence of frozen water there that can be used for life support and production of rocket fuel, which will ease the capacity of enhancing human presence and the eventual readiness for Mars in using the Moon as the base and launching pad by NASA.

NASA remains at the periphery of Washington’s space programme, alongside the more targeted US Space Force created under former President Trump. This government-private enterprise model paves the way for a more consolidated synergy in space dominance encompassing both the military and comprehensive hard power capacity in space alongside with the new frontier of scientific exploration and galvanisation of needed tools in serving both ends for American supremacy in space.

Russia’s first lunar mission in decades ended in failure with its Luna 25 spacecraft crashing onto the moon’s surface. This presents the tight race and difficulty in getting successful touchdowns on the surface.

The landing feat signals the early start of a more revolutionary era towards transportation around the solar system that is economical and resonating.

Struggle to establish space dominance

The return for space dominance and space science and technology supremacy is triggered in large swathes by the increasing power struggle to establish both soft power and space dominance in providing the greater credentials and leverage on the scramble for hard power precision military technology and the critical minerals and resources on the Moon.

As NASA puts it, one of the main goals is to ensure that a lunar economy is developed first by the Americans, in NASA’s ambitions to build a market in which privately owned companies compete to be part of the journey.

Amidst the modern moon rush, where both India and Japan have landed probes on the moon over the past year and China has had rovers there for more than a decade, the United States remains the supreme leader in this domain where it has both the precedence and the historical legacy in establishing the technological and scientific set-up and pre-emptive milestone that are way ahead of the Japanese, Indians and the Chinese. The Odysseus is the first privately built craft to make the journey, setting another benchmark that is hard to rival.

The next competing spacecraft scheduled to head to the moon might be the Chang’e-6 from China, in collecting lunar rocks and soil, scheduled for May 2024.

The Chandrayaan-3 landing last year marked a new breakthrough for New Delhi in the landing near Moon’s south pole, and this adds to a combined shared potential for a closer space strength galvanisation among the Quad members, now that Japan and India have moved closer to a more future resilient and sustaining space science, technology and capacity to bolster the joint alliance and strength in this domain.

Human habitation on the moon

All three are also seeking the same target in hunting for water-based ice which could support human habitation on the Moon in the future and as the base for future Mars missions.

They are racing against time to retain supremacy especially when Beijing is ramping up ambitious plans to send manned missions to the Moon by this decade and to build an international lunar research station.

Apart from the Chang’e-6 this year, Beijing is also targeting for its Chang’e-8 mission slated for 2028.

While the Chinese government has indicated for the intent to work together on spacecraft launch and orbit operation, and conduct spacecraft-to-spacecraft interactions, including jointly exploring the surface of the moon, current and future geopolitical and power security rivalries will make this hard to progress without the power supremacy sensitivity and the quest to widen the power gap in space.

This is especially so when considering the increased strategic efforts by Beijing to push the Americans out of their traditional space dominance by heightening the power of space missiles and the capacities of its satellites which can be used as direct weapons both in space and in increasing the lethality of military communications and weapons systems on Earth.

Those efforts to become a major space power have seen China become the first country to send a rover to the far side of the moon in 2019, and to complete construction of its orbital Tiangong space station last year.

The division on the space race is also laid bare when Beijing’s efforts to expand international space collaboration have seen the participation of Russia, Venezuela and South Africa.

Springboard for deeper space explorations

For the United States, it has more than two dozen countries signing on to its Artemis Accords norms for peaceful exploration of deep space. China is not among them.

In this decade, moon landings will be more common and established as there will be more than 100 lunar missions, both by private companies and by governments.

Among the primary factors, the scramble for critical resources remains one of the forefront motivations as resources on Earth are increasingly dwindling and polarised under the power struggle race.

Minerals including rare-earth metals and the isotope helium-3 are abundant on the Moon which can theoretically be used to power nuclear fusion reactors, with some ambitious plans of using that to power the Earth for centuries.

Water is another element that can be used to make rocket fuel and the Moon thus will serve as a refuelling station and a springboard for deeper space explorations.

The vast openings for current and future power dominance in this field that extend beyond the security and power realms alone will trigger a new wave of warfare and supremacy in creating a new domain of the infinite space offerings and power fuels in transcending the regional and geographical warfare and power projections.

Whichever power that gets to establish a sustained supremacy in space and a significant lunar presence and power leadership can boast of not only a breakthrough statement about its political, economic and technological system eminence and superiority, but also in leading the entire new ecosystem of energy, power and military frontiers.

This can either lead to a renewed hope for peace and future solutions in living sustainability or in deepening conflict prospects. Either way, the race is here to stay and by all accounts to date and despite the best efforts of the chasing pack, the United States remains supreme in the realm of space exploration and space power, extending beyond the conventional feats of NASA and the James Webb telescope alone.

The Moon and Mars will not be the final frontiers and the race has just begun, for the Americans to lose.


Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Foreign Affairs and Security Strategist with Universiti Malaya.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)