China Moon Mission Brings Lunar Rocks to Earth, and New Competition to Space

China Moon Mission Brings Lunar Rocks to Earth, and New Competition to Space

China Moon Mission Brings Lunar Rocks to Earth, and New Competition to Space

China Moon Mission Brings Lunar Rocks to Earth, and New Competition to Space

Entrepreneurial space companies could further upend any competition between NASA and China. By the time that NASA or Chinese astronauts reach the moon, Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, says he will be sending people to Mars. Even if Mr. Musk’s pronouncements turn out to be too optimistic, the future of space exploration may no longer be dominated by national space agencies.

Some hope that a competition between China and the United States could change to cooperation. But NASA is currently limited from directly working with the Chinese space agency or Chinese-owned companies. That provision was inserted in 2011 into the law financing NASA by Frank Wolf, then a Republican congressman from Virginia, to punish China for its human rights record and to protect American aerospace technology.

In the near term, planetary scientists in the United States could be left out of the science bonanza from the rocks gathered by Chang’e-5, which came from a region of the moon much younger than those visited previously.

Although the law does not prevent non-NASA scientists from working with Chinese counterparts, it does prevent Chinese scientists from looking at the moon rocks that NASA astronauts brought back during the Apollo missions, and China may well return that snub.

“Obviously the United States prohibits cooperation with China, no?” said Xiao Long, a scientist at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, who has advised the Chinese space program. “It certainly does not hope that China develops quickly. They have already put their cards on the table. It is not something that is being done quietly.”

At a talk on Tuesday to the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, addressed the prospect of relaxing the ban on NASA-China cooperation.

“It’s above my paygrade,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “But certainly, I do believe NASA is a tool of diplomacy. I believe that asset is a tool that can be used as, for example, a pot sweetener for a trade deal. I think it can be used for all kinds of purposes for international diplomacy.”


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