Though the term “space race” may be overused, there’s little doubt that international competition in space is heating up. One objective over which countries are vying is establishing a presence on the Moon. To learn more about this competition and its implications, we spoke to Marçal Sanmartí, a research assistant at the New Zealand International Review.
What are some of the major ongoing initiatives to go to the Moon?
In my opinion, even though there are several countries aiming to visit the Moon this decade, very few can handle manned missions and even fewer can create permanently inhabited posts. I would highlight then the two main candidates to achieve such a feat: the Artemis program led by the United States, and the agreement between Russia and China to establish a permanent scientific research center on the Moon called the International Lunar Research Station. Developments in rocket science such as nuclear energy-powered rockets could become game changers. In this case I would keep an eye on Russia as it could surprise the world again as it recently did with the COVID-19 vaccine.
Why is there a “rush” among countries to establish a presence on the Moon?
I would say it is a mix of scientific, economic, military, and cultural factors. There is certainly a political goal: having a person stepping on an extraterrestrial body sends a very powerful message about a country’s leadership, both inside and outside the country achieving it. Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Sure, but then he left the United States flag on the Moon. He did not leave a United Nations flag. The geopolitical order that followed the end of the Cold War, when the United States was the sole hyperpower, is over. And power admits no vacuum; it fills it. The competition to get a better position on the chessboard of geopolitics is becoming more intense. Access to our natural satellite is going to be one of the theaters of this competition.
What are some of the likely consequences of this rush to the Moon?
On the bright side, it will democratize access to space. More countries and more private companies competing will likely bring technological advances and cut down prices. On the dark side, even though international collaboration is what is most needed on this common goal of space exploration, the complete opposite might end up happening. National interests may well take precedence over global ones, as climate change and COVID-19 show, unfortunately.