"It is a fact: We're in a space race," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told Politico in a recent interview. And it's not just about politics and bragging rights—there are both national security and practical implications, according to many US officials. "We better watch out that [the Chinese] don't get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research," Nelson added. "It is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, 'Keep out, we're here, this is our territory.'" Meanwhile, America's space agency got almost all the money it wanted from Congress, including full funding for key components of the Artemis program, which seeks to put a permanent human presence on the moon by 2025. Much depends on whether SpaceX delivers on its promises.
Artemis may be ambitious, but it's the Chinese program that has developed in "stunningly fast" fashion and with "enormous success and advances," particularly in the past decade. As Fortune reported last month, construction of the Tiangong ("heavenly palace") space station is complete, and the first three-person team of "taikonauts" are in orbit conducting science experiments. Unlike the collaborative International Space Station, Tiangong is entirely managed by one nation, highlighting China's "self-reliance" as it works toward its "larger space ambitions." As for moon exploration, China has already expressed its "pioneering ability" by collecting samples and establishing communications from the far side of the moon, per Politico.
American scientists and military officials have expressed a fair amount of concern about Chinese ambitions, based in part on how China has asserted itself in the Pacific around the disputed Spratly Islands. China vehemently rejects suggestions that it intends to lay claim to any celestial real estate, and some experts say existing treaties—together with more friendly, collaborative engagement—should be sufficient to keep the peace. Still, there are practical matters at stake, including competition for a limited number of good moon-landing sites with access to water and other resources. (Read more Chinese space program stories.)