US setbacks in lunar race against China put the role of private firms to the test

Two recent setbacks in the United States’ race to the moon with China underscore the challenges of NASA’s reliance on a new strategy heavily involving private companies.

Recent delays in NASA’s Artemis moon program and a propulsion issue leading to the failure of American company Astrobotic’s recent robot moon lander highlight the hurdles faced by the only country to have set foot on the moon, as it navigates tighter budgets while upholding its cosmic legacy.

The United States aims to return astronauts to the moon by late 2026, a delay from the initially planned 2025. In contrast, China is targeting crewed landings by 2030. Before human missions, both space powers plan smaller robotic missions to explore the moon’s surface. China’s government-backed program has achieved several notable milestones.

Astrobotic’s lander, carrying seven NASA instruments for lunar surface inspection, faced a malfunction. Despite this setback, NASA sponsors three other private moon missions, including a second attempt by Astrobotic, all scheduled for this year.

NASA heavily relies on companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, paying for the use of its Starship HLS lunar landing spacecraft, in an effort to reduce the cost of moon missions. This marks a departure from the days of the Apollo missions, over half a century ago, when NASA owned all spacecraft involved.

NASA Chief Bill Nelson acknowledges China’s aggressive lunar plans but remains confident in the U.S. position. He stated, “I think they would like to land before us because that might give them some PR coup. But the fact is, I don’t think they will.”

U.S. startups entering the space industry face the challenge of developing expertise and culture that took well-funded governments decades to cultivate. India, too, follows a similar approach, relying heavily on private companies for its space exploration efforts.

In the complex world of space missions, unexpected challenges are common, as noted by Carnegie Mellon professor Red Whittaker, who led the development of a moon rover. Astrobotic’s Peregrine mission director, Sharad Bhaskaran, highlighted the steep challenges faced by the company, emphasizing the need for creativity and efficiency within budget constraints.

China continues its lunar exploration with an automated mission planned this year to retrieve samples from the moon’s far side. China’s Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 missions achieved historic lunar landings in 2013 and 2019, respectively.

While setbacks like Astrobotic’s failure occur, India sees them as valuable learning experiences for private entities. Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder of Skyroot Aerospace, expressed optimism, stating that such challenges inspire startups to undertake missions of similar scale in the future.

The next private player aiming for the moon is Intuitive Machines, a U.S. moon lander startup that has invested about $100 million in its mission. CEO Steve Altemus highlighted the need to build an entire lunar program, making the endeavor more expensive but comprehensive.

In the evolving space race, both governmental and private players continue to face challenges, setbacks, and opportunities for growth and learning.

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