China and the US are Going to the Moon
A comparison of how they plan to get there
Bootprints have not been left on the Moon since the early 1970s, but that will soon change. With NASA’s Artemis and China’s CLEP programs both scheduled to return humans to the Moon before 2030, the two superpowers are apparently in a “race” to the Lunar surface. But this time, who gets there “first” matters little. Instead, this race is about building a sustainable human presence on the Moon. Here is how China’s and America’s approaches differ, and what it means for the future of spaceflight and human progress.
In 2022, NASA test-launched the SLS carrier rocket. The SLS is capable of lofting some 27 tons to the Moon and is derived from hardware left over from the Space Shuttle. It is not reusable and controversial due to its cost, at some $2 Billion per launch, and because it’s largely a rehash of 1970s technology.
China’s launch vehicle will be the ChangZheng-10 or CZ-10. Then CZ-10 will have a similar payload capacity, tossing some 25 tons to the Moon. The key difference is that the CZ-10 will aim to be at least partially reusable, landing back on Earth and caught by a tether system. Although the CZ-10 has not yet flown, key hardware is ready, including the reusable YF-100 engines, and the first flight is planned for 2026. For a detailed look at this rocket, please see my write-up here.
Note that China also developing the far larger CZ-9 rocket, which also aims to be partially reusable but has far greater payload capacity, some 50+ tons to the Moon. The CZ-9 will fly after 2035, alongside the CZ-10, and be used to build a sustainable human presence on the Moon. The design of this rocket is in flux, for more information see my separate write-up.
Both NASA’s and the CNSA’s next-generation spacecraft have already made uncrewed test flights. NASA’s craft, called Orion, is designed to be partially reusable and flew a dress rehearsal in 2022 aboard the maiden flight of the SLS rocket. It will be able to carry 4 astronauts, with its first crewed flight planned for 2024.
Its Chinese counterpart is thus far unnamed, but it too is designed to be partially reusable and underwent its first uncrewed test flight in 2020. Unlike Orion, however, which lands in the ocean, the Chinese craft lands on solid ground using airbags. It can carry up to six astronauts but likely will carry 3-4 on Lunar sorties.
To land on the Moon, NASA has contracted the development of the lunar lander to SpaceX. SpaceX’s proposed Human Landing System, or HLS, is ambitious. To get to the Moon, SpaceX’s own Starship rocket will launch the HLS into Earth orbit, where it will be fuelled by a visiting tanker craft. Once fueled, the lander departs Earth and parks itself in Lunar orbit awaiting visitors from Orion who launch separately on the SLS. In theory, the lander may one day be reusable if it can be refueled again.
Like NASA, China has also chosen to launch the lander separately from the crew. But China’s approach is more conventional, preferring a smaller landing system to shuttle crews to and from the Lunar surface. The as-yet-unnamed Chinese lander includes an expendable propulsion module, thus, it does not appear to be reusable in its current form. A model of the lander was recently unveiled (see above).
Here again, NASA contracted with a private company, called Axiom, to develop the spacesuit needed for the Moon. Axiom recently unveiled its prototype Lunar EVA suit, called the AxEMU. The suit promises reduced cost, greater flexibility, greater capability, and reduced weight when compared with those used on the Apollo missions. Note the final suit will be white, not black and orange as represented.
There is no information about the planned Chinese spacesuit, but it could be a derivative of the existing FeiTian suits used aboard the Chinese Tiangong Space Station. The FeiTian suits themselves are improved versions of the Russian Orlan suits. That said, it’s also possible that China may develop a clean sheet design.
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A Different Kind of “Race”
NASA’s 2025 Lunar landing date looks unlikely to hold, with significant work remaining on the HLS in particular. As a consequence, China and the US are locked in a “race” to reach the Moon in the 2026-2029 timeframe. But who gets there “first” is not truly relevant.
Instead, what matters is the sustainability of Lunar exploration and human presence. China’s decision to utilize a partially reusable launch vehicle, as opposed to NASA’s reliance on expensive SLS, arguably makes the Chinese approach more affordable and cost-effective. With that said, NASA will eventually have the opportunity to pivot to privately-developed and reusable alternatives, including SpaceX’s Starship or Blue Origin’s New Glenn as the main carrier vehicle.
In this new “race” to the Moon, there is no one set answer. Competing ideas and approaches is a hallmark of innovation and the human spirit. It brings out the best in us and the best of human ingenuity and creativity. Hopefully, both China and America reach the Moon as planned, setting the stage for a sustainable human presence on the Moon and eventually, beyond.