China has claimed success with their ambitious mission to the moon. In addition to achieving numerous technical firsts, China planted their flag on the Moon’s surface, making it the second country in history to put its flag there. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. planted a flag on the lunar surface.
The photograph of the new flag on the moon was taken by China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft before it left the Moon on Thursday to return to the Earth.
The spacecraft landed on the “dark side” of the moon and collected lunar rock samples for examination on Earth. This is the first time in more than four decades lunar rock has been retrieved from the Moon to Earth. China says the return mission to Earth should take 1-2 weeks if all systems progress as expected.
China has expressed interest in setting up manned missions to the Moon to establish a base there; it is possible that China will beat America along the way. China has announced that they will have a crewed space station by 2022 and plan to send humans to the Moon once that space station is operational.
President Donald Trump signed a new directive in the fall of 2018 telling NASA to lead a “sustainable program of exploration” that would allow humans to move further into the solar system—”to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities.” The moon, NASA says, is an important gateway to space travel. Creating a permanent base both on the moon will provide astronauts a platform from which they can explore the deeper realms of space, including manned missions to Mars.
President Barack Obama had cancelled much space exploration programs during his administration including a manned mission to the moon. Trump changed course, giving marching orders to NASA to return Americans to the Moon by 2024. In 2017, Trump issued a directive for NASA to focus on establishing a permanent outpost on the moon as a stepping stone to Mars, and perhaps to other places as well. To support the directive, Trump signed an executive order re-establishing the National Space Council, a space policy advisory body that was last active some 25 years ago. Vice President Michael Pence serves as Chairman of the National Space Council.
In May of 2019, President Trump and NASA unveiled a budget update which boosts NASA’s spending by $1.6billion to return to the Moon and officially revealed the Artemis project.
“Under my Administration, we are restoring NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” said the President at the time. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine welcomed the budget increase, saying, “This is the boost NASA needs to move forward with putting the next man and the first woman on the Moon. Thank you, President Trump!” Bridenstine added that this $1.6billion figure serves as a “down payment” to move forward with design, development & exploration with the goal of bringing men and women back to the surface of the moon by 2024. In addition to funding for a human lunar landing system, it also helps fund robotic exploration of the Moon’s polar regions.
With the potential for a new administration, though, there’s risk of whether or not Artemis and America’s ambitions for the Moon will be realized anytime soon. According to a report in the November 8 “Aerospace Daily & Defense Report”, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine won’t remain in NASA’s lead role in a Biden administration “even if asked.”
“You need somebody who has a close relationship with the president of the U.S. … somebody trusted by the administration …. including OMB (Office of Management and Budget), National Space Council, National Security Council,” Bridenstine told Irene Klotz, space editor for Aviation Week, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report’s parent publication. “I think I would not be the right person for that in a new administration.”
Sources with the Biden administration say that space travel could get de-funded so that other programs, such as climate change studies, could be funded. This was the approach taken by the Obama administration prior to Trump’s arrival in Washington, DC. If crewed space travel is defunded in a new administration, China could take a clear lead in the modern day space race to bring humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.