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Will China take over the moon?

Bigelow Aerospace / msnbc.com

A scale model shows Bigelow Aerospace's proposed lunar colony, made from inflatable modules, with a fleet of lunar landers in the background.

Is China on course to surpass the United States as the world's space superpower and stake a claim on the moon in the next 15 years? Billionaire space executive Robert Bigelow is deeply worried about that scenario — and he says Americans need a "kick in the ass" to respond to the challenge.

Bigelow delivered that kick today at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M. — but the general consensus among experts on China policy is that it's a bit too early to start rattling the sabers.

The founder of the Budget Suites hotel chain and Bigelow Aerospace promised to "cause a stimulation" with his remarks at the ISPCS conference, and delivered on that promise by laying out an argument for China's growing space dominance. He said the trend could conceivably lead to a lunar takeover in the 2022-2026 time frame.


Bigelow characterized China as "the new gunslinger in Dodge" when it came to space exploration.

The way he sees it, China is progressing along a slow, steady path toward space proficiency. The steps in that path include follow-ups to the Shenzhou 8 spacewalk mission in 2008, the unmanned Chang'e lunar missions and last month's Tiangong 1 space lab launch. In the coming years, China will have plenty of cash for great leaps forward in space, while the United States will be hamstrung by higher debt and tighter budgets.

Why the moon?
Why would China want to lay claim to the moon? Bigelow referred to some of the long-discussed potential benefits, including the moon's abundance of helium-3, which could someday be used as fuel for nuclear fusion (although that idea has been oversold in the past). The moon's raw material could also be turned into the water, oxygen, building materials and rocket fuel needed for human exploration. But Bigelow said the biggest payoff would come in the form of international prestige, just as it did for the United States after the moon landings.

AP file

Bigelow Aerospace's Robert Bigelow worries that China will lay claim to the moon in the 2020s.

"This would endure for a very long time," he said. "It’s priceless. ... Nothing else that China could possibly do in the next 15 years could produce as great a benefit."

Bigelow speculated that China could conduct detailed surface-based surveys of the lunar surface in the mid-2020s, setting the stage for the country to withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and formally claim possession of the moon. China could then conceivably insist on being paid for lunar concessions, Bigelow said.

He said the Chinese challenge could serve as a "fear factor" to energize the efforts of NASA and its space partners. "It's the best kick in the ass that you can have," he told reporters after his talk. He also doubted that the Chinese would be content with taking on the status of a partner in the U.S.-led space "family," even if they were invited to join. "They want to have their own family," he said.

Bigelow proposed diverting 10 percent of the U.S. defense budget to the space effort, which he said would provide an annual boost of $60 billion. It may turn out to be "too late" for a space race to the moon, he said; Bigelow suggested that a U.S.-led consortium should target Mars instead.

What do the experts say?
Bigelow said his analysis was based on two years of observing the space policy landscape, rather than personal discussions with the Chinese. Generally speaking, experts on Chinese space policy say that it's too early to judge the nation's long-term intentions.

"I think it is a little bit of a stretch to think about whether the Chinese will be laying claim to the moon," Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, told me today. "I would be very surprised if they had any plans one way or the other."

Cheng said the Chinese were clearly interested in lunar exploration. "They will have all the pieces in place in the 2021-2025 time period to think about putting a man on the moon," he said. But he doubted that China would try to do anything inflammatory — for example, rolling up the American flag at Tranquility Base and putting a Chinese flag in its place. "Incendiary stuff, not likely," Cheng said.

It's more likely that China would want to see an international body such as the United Nations in charge of lunar exploration and exploitation, Cheng said. He pointed to the example of the Law of the Sea Convention, which governs the use of marine resources but has not yet been ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Cheng said the Chinese would prefer to see lunar resources controlled by an intergovernmental body rather than private-sector entities. He said they'd definitely oppose an arrangement in which non-governmental entities are in charge, such as the system set up by ICANN, the Internet's governing body.

"The prospect of the Chinese having to deal with the space equivalent of ICANN is their worst nightmare," he told me.

Other observations from Robert Bigelow:

  • For years, Bigelow has been working on inflatable space modules based on technology developed by NASA, and two of the modules have been lofted into orbit by Russian rockets. Bigelow said the Genesis 1 and 2 modules were no longer providing useful data, but that they were designed to stay in orbit for 12 years. That suggests that the modules would make their re-entry no earlier than the 2018-2019 time frame. 
  • Bigelow had planned to make habitable orbital modules available to international clients starting in late 2014. But today, he told reporters that the schedule has been put on hold, due to the economic downturn as well as questions about the availability of private spaceships capable of servicing the habitats. Once the decision is made to resume the project, it would probably take no more than three years to launch the modules, Bigelow said.
  • Bigelow said the workforce at Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace has been reduced from 115 workers to 51, due to the slowdown in work on the inflatable modules.
  • Bigelow Aerospace has its own plan to put a colony on the moon. In the ISPCS exhibit hall, the company displayed a scale model of a base made up of inflatable modules that Bigelow said could be assembled in deep space and then transported to the lunar surface. "What was once a station lands as a base," he explained. For now, however, there are no plans to turn the concept into an actual base.

Stay tuned for more reports about the space frontier from the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight on Thursday. We'll also be featuring some of the leaders of the private-sector space effort, including Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Mark Sirangelo, SpaceX's Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, in an upcoming installment of our "Future of Technology" series.

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