A Sino-Russian moon base? Not so fast.

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In June, China and Russia unveiled a road map for a joint lunar base plan dubbed the International Lunar Research Station, the latest example of nascent Sino-Russian cooperation and a direct challenge to the United States’ own plan for a moon base. “More than six decades ago, courageous men began their exploration of the moon. »The Sino-Russian announcement video noted. “This time we arrive with more courage, stronger determination and more ambitious goals. “

The plan is impressive in its ambition: a decades-long multilateral effort consisting of 14 missions and culminating in a potential manned base, making it the largest China-Russia cooperation project in space. This effort follows an increasing trend in the number of Chinese-Russian Cooperation in the economic, military and diplomatic fields. For the Americans, it’s a challenge: America’s two main adversaries are collaborating on a high-tech company in an attempt to surpass the plans of NASA’s moon base – part of the Artemis program – and wrest leadership in space exploration in the United States. The Sino-Russian moon base and the Artemis program both aim to recruit a global coalition of states to build a lunar research base on the moon. South pole. Beyond science and exploration, these efforts concern national prestige, stimulate new technologies and industries, experiment with resource extraction, and set the stage for further missions to the Moon and Mars.

There has been minimal response from governments around the world, and no country has yet responded to the invitation from China and Russia to participate in the lunar research station. Governments considering a response, such as European countries that would “Discuss the proposal”– are probably occupied with the same question: will this plan succeed, or is it the hot air of the propagandists of Beijing and Moscow? A detailed examination of the plan reveals that it faces many significant hurdles judging by the turbulent history of Sino-Russian space cooperation, the daunting technical hurdles the plan faces, and the delicate political balance that must continue. for the project to be successful.

In June, China and Russia unveiled a road map for a joint lunar base plan dubbed the International Lunar Research Station, the latest example of nascent Sino-Russian cooperation and a direct challenge to the United States’ own plan for a moon base. “More than six decades ago, courageous men began their exploration of the moon. »The Sino-Russian announcement video noted. “This time we arrive with more courage, stronger determination and more ambitious goals. “

The plan is impressive in its ambition: a decades-long multilateral effort consisting of 14 missions and culminating in a potential manned base, making it the largest China-Russia cooperation project in space. This effort follows an increasing trend in the number of Chinese-Russian Cooperation in the economic, military and diplomatic fields. For the Americans, it’s a challenge: America’s two main adversaries are collaborating on a high-tech company in an attempt to surpass the plans of NASA’s moon base – part of the Artemis program – and wrest leadership in space exploration in the United States. The Sino-Russian moon base and the Artemis program both aim to recruit a global coalition of states to build a lunar research base on the moon. South pole. Beyond science and exploration, these efforts concern national prestige, stimulate new technologies and industries, experiment with resource extraction, and set the stage for further missions to the Moon and Mars.

There has been minimal response from governments around the world, and no country has yet responded to the invitation from China and Russia to participate in the lunar research station. Governments considering a response, such as European countries that would “Discuss the proposal”– are probably occupied with the same question: will this plan succeed, or is it the hot air of the propagandists of Beijing and Moscow? A detailed examination of the plan reveals that it faces many significant hurdles judging by the turbulent history of Sino-Russian space cooperation, the daunting technical hurdles the plan faces, and the delicate political balance that must continue. for the project to be successful.

The proposed moon base would be by far the most important Sino-Russian cooperation enterprise in space. Previous cooperation between the two powers has yielded mixed success. In 1957, the Soviet Union and China signed the New technical defense agreement, whereby Moscow provided Beijing with nuclear and missile-related capabilities. Chinese scientists, led by Mao Zedong, began to search for satellites and were awaiting help from Russia. In 1958, the CIA hypothesized that substantial Russian aid could allow China to launch a satellite by 1959 or 1960. However, when Chinese scientists visited Moscow a few months later, they were not allowed to see satellite designs or launch sites and were advised to forgo satellites. In 1960, Soviet advisers left China due to the deepening of the political rift between the two main communist states, putting an end to hopes for space cooperation.

Over the following decades, the Soviet Union focused squarely on competing with the United States while China advanced its own local space program. The next period of cooperation took place in the mid-1990s, when Russia sold space technology, including Soyuz capsule designs, which accelerated China’s development of inhabited space. program.

In 2007, China and Russia signed an agreement to “joint Sino-Russian exploration of Mars”, Resulting in the launch in 2011 of an orbiter and a landing craft on Mars. However, the Russian rocket malfunctioned, causing Russian and Chinese spacecraft to crash on Earth, an embarrassing conclusion to the two countries’ first attempt to reach the red planet.

Building and maintaining a lunar base would require massive financial investments, the development of new technologies, and substantial advancements in rocket technology from China and Russia. There is no public budget for the project, but it would surely take tens of billions of dollars. For comparison, NASA estimates that the Artemis program will cost $ 86 billion by 2025.

Russia’s space program is strapped for cash and has seen its budget plummet 18 percent since 2014, with deeper cuts planned over the next three years. Funding difficulties have undermined Russian space priorities such as their flagship post-Soviet rocket, the Angara, which is already 16 years late.

China’s space program is better endowed with resources– just behind the United States among national initiatives – and would likely fund most of the joint project, as Russian commentators happily have it Noted. But Beijing may prefer to fund other ongoing initiatives such as the Tiangong Space Station and its own highly publicized Mars and Lunar missions; similarly, Russia can allocate its limited resources to a project multibillion dollar space station.

The plan for the lunar station would force the two countries to develop new advanced modules. By extrapolating from proposed scheme and Chinese academic writing on the subject, the project would require the development of space nuclear energy, tunnel boring machines, swarms of small autonomous robots, long-range communication systems, moon-based telescopes, resource extraction capabilities and, if it is to support humans, a whole host of housing technologies. These are ambitious capabilities for two countries that have never landed rovers on the moon.

The plan would also require China and Russia to successfully commission new heavy-lift rockets in the early 2030s. China plans to use the Long March 9, which has been in development since 2011. China aims to have the system ready by 2030, leaving little room for delays.

A bigger problem is Russia’s heavy-lift rocket. The project roadmap describes a Russian Angara class rocket which appears to be around 300 feet tall. Such a rocket does not exist. In fact, the rocket appears to be a recycled and resized diagram of a long-abandoned Angara rocket setup. This suggests that a new heavy lift rocket will be built in the in trouble The Angara program or diagram is a deceptive placeholder for another development rocket. Neither scenario inspires confidence.

In any joint venture, the most important determinant of success is the political will of both parties, which can be undermined in three main ways. The first is the internal political situation of each country: will other priorities take precedence on a common lunar base and will they encourage one or the other of the parties to miss the deadlines or to suspend their participation, of especially since the two countries are likely to experience changes in direction over the course of the decades-long project?

The second consideration is the power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow, and its evolution over the duration of the project of more than 20 years. It is no secret that Beijing is the main party in the project, that it has a better endowed space program and that it is advancing to a faster rate. China had been discussing this moon base for 2016 before inviting Russia to to participate. Will China tolerate the Russian partnership if Moscow’s tasks are constantly delayed? In a disturbing start, Russia’s first contribution, the Luna-25 mission, encountered “problems”And was delayed for seven months. On the other hand, will Russia, with its proud history of space exploration, tolerate playing second fiddle to Chinese upstarts?

The third variable is whether Russia and China will continue to view the United States as their main geopolitical competitor over the next several decades. Mutual opposition to perceived US space dominance has been the main driver of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Predicting the power dynamics between the great powers over a 20-year period is an incredibly difficult, if not futile endeavor, but one cannot simply assume stasis.

China and Russia do not hesitate to promote their ambitious common lunar project to the world, claiming that it “will benefit all mankind”. But the plan faces substantial, but not insurmountable, challenges, judging by the lackluster history of Sino-Russian space cooperation, financial and technical barriers, and the delicate political balance the project requires. Other governments that see the Sino-Russian moon base as a competitive alternative to the Artemis program would do well to reconsider the viability and practicality of the proposal.


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