The West needs bold, sustainable, and inclusive space programs and visions, or else

A Chinese concept for a lunar base. China’s long-term vision for space exploration and utilization poses a challenge to the US and its partners. (credit: CAST)

China is planning an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the lunar south pole region, and recently revealed that it is seeking international partners.

I hope there’ll be international ILRS partners, but I guess they’ll play only a token role. Since I’m not too optimistic on the US Artemis lunar program (I’ll come to that), going to the Moon as guests of the Chinese may become the only plausible option for aspiring astronauts in the rest of the world. But of course, foreigners will be kept far from the really important things that China wants.

What does China want? Plausibly, China wants to establish cislunar space supremacy with first mover advantage and de-facto monopoly in lunar industry, first and foremost mining. The Moon can ultimately be mined for rare earth elements and helium-3.

There is a high demand for rare earth elements in the defense and high technology industries. It’s worth noting that, at this moment, China controls more than 80 percent of the global rare earth elements supply. Mining any accessible lunar rare earth elements—and preventing others from doing so—would consolidate China’s de-facto monopoly.

In Return to the Moon (2006), Harrison Schmitt developed a comprehensive end-to-end plan for mining helium-3 on the Moon and shipping it back to Earth to power next-generation nuclear fusion reactors. A large supply of helium-3, which is only present in trace amounts on Earth but is much more abundant on the Moon, could open the door to environmentally safe nuclear fusion, which might be the solution to future energy needs.

Schmitt’s plan has been criticized mainly because there are many technical challenges to overcome before helium-3 fusion becomes operational and viable. However, there are promising indications that using helium-3 in fusion reactors could be the way to achieve practical nuclear fusion. Further developments have been funded by large energy companies and could create a huge market for lunar helium-3.

Lunar helium-3 could “solve human beings’ energy demand for around 10,000 years at least,” said Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the Chinese lunar exploration program, as reported by the BBC.

If lunar helium-3 fusion becomes a reality in a few decades, China and its allies could stand out in a world strangled by energy needs growing faster than supply. Of course, China would exploit this position for geopolitical advance.

There’s also much to add on possible military implications of cislunar space supremacy. According to a recent Pentagon report summarized by SpaceNews, “China is advancing space capabilities across the board — in satellites, launch vehicles, sensors and lunar systems, all intended to help fulfill China’s long-term goal of becoming the world’s most powerful space power.”

But let me elaborate on cultural factors instead. The rest of the world could look at China as the promised land of unlimited progress—just like, you know, the rest of the world used to look at America.

When it comes to cultural issues, the importance of science fiction shouldn’t be underestimated. It can be argued, in fact, that American “Golden Age” science fiction played a key role—perhaps the key role—in energizing and motivating the sharpest young minds.

Now, Chinese science fiction is booming in the wake of the spectacular success of the film adaptation of The Wandering Earth, a science fiction novel by Liu Cixin. “The China of the present is a bit like America during science fiction’s Golden Age, when science and technology filled the future with wonder,” said the author.

Netflix recently announced that it will produce a TV series based on Liu Cixin’s masterpiec, The Three-Body Problem trilogy. If you haven’t read it, you should. It will give you all the awe and wonder of Golden Age science fiction with a modern and uniquely Chinese slant.

China has issued a new policy document related to the domestic production of science fiction films, with a number of guidelines. Chinese science fiction films should promote China as a technologically advanced nation, “disseminate scientific thought,” and “raise the spirit of scientists.” Their films should also “highlight Chinese values,” and “inherit Chinese culture and aesthetics.” But first and foremost, Chinese science fiction filmmakers are instructed to “thoroughly study and implement” Xi Jinping’s thought.”

Now, I can’t claim to know much about Xi’s thought. But the little that I know makes me wary. If you ask me, I wouldn’t like to see Xi’s China—an authoritarian surveillance state where the citizens are monitored, rated, and punished from the cradle to the grave—achieve space supremacy and cultural supremacy here on Earth.

But I’m reading (and loving) a lot of Chinese science fiction to make peace with that possible future. If it must be, so be it! To me, advancing toward an interplanetary humanity is more important than other current issues.

There’s the perception that China is advancing slowly but steadily like a glacier, and the West is stumbling around like a drunkard. This exaggeration has, I think, elements of truth. Of course, the West should react. But how?

The current US administration is committed to the Artemis program and the return of American astronauts to the Moon by 2024. But at this moment I don’t see a bright future for Artemis. If Biden wins the US presidential election in November, the program may be abandoned. If Trump wins reelection without winning back the House, Artemis will continue to be financially strangled by ferocious partisan opposition.

Of course, politicians are only interested in popular causes that can win them influence and votes. So, the only way out is, I think, making space popular again as it was in the ’60s. Our space programs and visions must be bold, because that’s the only way to rekindle public enthusiasm for space.

We need crewed lunar outposts—an ambitious but achievable goal—to get people excited, start the industrial development of the Moon, and prepare the way for Mars and the planets.

Our space programs and visions must be sustainable. Here the private sector is leading the way with the development of cheaper launch systems. But at this moment it would be naive, I think, to expect the private sector to go it alone without government support. Therefore, NASA and other public agencies should continue to lead until the private sector is ready to take over.

Last, but by no means least, our space programs and visions must be inclusive. China and the US are the only credible space superpowers at the moment, but the rest of the world must be involved. The Moon Village Association, a global forum for a broad spectrum of stakeholders, does important work in this direction.

Even in America and the developed West, a large number of people have been excluded in the past. Never forget the angry words of Gil Scott-Heron! Including everyone seems essential to rekindle public enthusiasm for space in the West.

I’m a classical liberal with a somewhat libertarian heart but a very pragmatic mind. My libertarian heart firmly supports equal opportunity, but not affirmative action and the identity politics that is so widespread today. But my pragmatic mind tells me that, if “political correctness” is the way to achieve bipartisan and widespread public support for crewed lunar outposts and planetary missions, so be it!

But please hurry up. Or Xi will own the Moon and the planets.