Moonshot again: US, China exploring moon to create business opportunities

Three things have changed since a human being last walked on the moon 50 years ago. One, discoveries of hydrogen, oxygen and helium in the lunar atmosphere and ice on its southern polar surface make mining the satellite’s resources a possibility. The US has moved ahead of proposed UN regulation on commercial exploitation/exploration of space, and its launch on Wednesday of Artemis 1 – the first of three missions to put humans back on the moon with the eventual aim of creating a permanent settlement there – is driven by an economic agenda and the strategic resumption of a space race. The moon is expected to provide a launchpad for prospecting further afield in the solar system.

Two, China has declared its intention and demonstrated capability – aided by Russia‘s extensive space programme – of colonising the moon within a decade. The technology leap this involves will provide Beijing with a strategic lever over earth-orbiting satellite constellations that are becoming vital to global commerce apart from their military use. The Indian space programme, too, is establishing a footprint in satellite launches and interplanetary missions. Nasa‘s Artemis programme has the European and Japanese space agencies on board. Which could make it easier for the US to widen the lead it has surrendered over the years in exploring space.

Three, the nature of funding space flight has changed. The Artemis programme is underway at a time when the US government spends half a percentage point of its budget on space initiatives. This is a contrast from the original race to the moon during the John F Kennedy era when about 4% of the federal budget went into funding space exploration. Commercial interest in space travel – as displayed by Elon Musk‘s SpaceX and Jeff Bezo‘s Blue Origin – is making satellite and rocket technology less vulnerable to political funding, which dried up after Nasa’s Apollo programme put a dozen astronauts on the lunar surface, the last in 1972. Apollo was about making a point. Artemis means business.

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