Fifty years after America landed the first humans on Earth’s satellite, as many as five nations with many more international partners are planning missions headed to the moon in the next decade. But unlike the first moon race during the Cold War, the new race is focused on more than demonstrating national scientific and political dominance. The goals this time around are also commercial: To find new resources, exploit them, and find a way to live and work sustainably outside Earth’s orbit.
While the United States has many advantages in this new lunar competition, it is not at all clear that it will “win” this time around. As POLITICO Defense editorBryan Bender reports, China is currently operating a lunar lander on the moon’s far side and is following a methodical, long-term plan to colonize and commercialize the moon, particularly its valuable ice deposits at the south pole. Countries including Russia, India and Israel have their own lunar programs underway. Meanwhile, the United States is still trying to articulate its new moon mission and get buy-in from Congress and the public. President Donald Trump has announced a target of returning humans to the moon’s surface by 2024, a date that coincidentally or not could be the final year of his presidency, should he win a second term.
If you’re having trouble keeping track of all that competition, don’t miss our interactive graphic showing the different lunar missions already underway.
The 2024 target date is virtually the only thing clear about the U.S. moon program; all the rest of the questions, such as how astronauts will get there and what they’ll do, is up for debate. (As is the president’s level of enthusiasm for his own policy.) As Jacqueline Feldscher, author of POLITICO’s Space newsletter, reports, a key focus of that fight is something called the Lunar Gateway, a space station NASA wants to send into the moon’s orbit to serve as a way station for astronauts shuttling to and from the surface. NASA says the Gateway will provide important support for surface missions and help develop the technology needed to live and work in space in the long term. But critics see it as a “moondoggle,” an expensive project designed more to repurpose existing space contracts, and some members of Congress remain unconvinced. The outcome of the debate could determine whether the country meets Trump’s deadline.
Looking ahead, it’s easy to see that national and commercial moon missions may soon be competing for some of the same lunar territory, and it’s not clear how such property disputes will be settled. POLITICO foreign affairs correspondent Nahal Toosi takes a look at the legal vacuum in space and explores the question, “Who owns the moon?” Strangely, one answer may be a guy named Dennis.
Elsewhere in the issue, we have an exclusive Q&A with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, and essays from two experts on different aspects of the new moon race: space economist Akhil Rao explores whether robots or humans are the more economical choice for moon operations, and Apollo historian Charles Fishman offers five lessons from the Apollo space program that policymakers should learn as we head into the next era of lunar exploration.
Welcome to The Agenda Special Report: The New Moon Race.
Maura Reynolds, editor