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Robert Bigelow, speaking at the ISPCS conference in New Mexico this month, claimed that China is on a path towards taking control of the Moon within 15 years. (credit: ISPCS)

Fear of a Chinese Moon

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Robert Bigelow is best known in space circles as the founder of Bigelow Aerospace, the company he created over a decade ago to develop commercial space habitats using expandable (or inflatable) technology licensed from NASA. The Las Vegas-based company has successfully launched two prototype modules, Genesis 1 and 2, to demonstrate the technology and has plans for larger modules and commercial space stations for companies and so-called “sovereign clients”, nations without their own indigenous space programs.

“I think nothing else the Chinese could possibly do in the next 15 years would cause as great a benefit for China” as claiming the Moon, Bigelow said.

Bigelow’s plans originally generated considerable skepticism in the broader space community. However, as the company won success with its Genesis missions and found interest in its plans from potential customers and even NASA—which sees the demand generated by Bigelow’s commercial habitats as a key part of the broader business case for the agency’s commercial crew plans—Bigelow has gained considerable credibility. Now, he’s using the platform he has as one of the nation’s leading space entrepreneurs to broadcast a warning about an unusual, even quixotic, threat to America’s space ambitions: that China will, in effect, seize the Moon.

Speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico, earlier this month, Bigelow spent very little time talking about his own company and its ambitions. Instead, he spent most of his nearly 40-minute speech focusing on his belief that, within 15 years, China will not only land people on the Moon, but will claim it as its own territory, locking out the United States and other nations.

Why would China do such a thing? Bigelow is convinced that China’s quest for prestige—to demonstrate that it is the most powerful country in the world—will inevitably drive the country to lay claim to the Moon. “China already has a grand national vision,” he said. “Their vision is that China wants to be indisputably number one in the world, measured any way you want to measure.”

That means, he said, not just simply repeating the past achievements of the US in space but moving beyond them. “Why not take the all-important syllogistic next step: ownership, ownership, ownership?” he suggested. Doing so, he said, would generate “global psychological impact” and considerable prestige for the Chinese people. “I think nothing else the Chinese could possibly do in the next 15 years would cause as great a benefit for China,” he said.

He argued that China, with its growing wealth and its historical “ability to maintain focus”, would be in a position to land humans on the Moon and start making claims between 2022 and 2026. “China has an ability to focus and galvanize its programs because of the centralization of the government” that can allow them to stay on that schedule, he told reporters after his ISPCS talk.

One obvious obstacle is the Outer Space Treaty, of which China is a party, which prohibits countries from making territorial claims to the Moon or other celestial bodies. Bigelow suggested, though, that China could work to amend the treaty through the support of countries in Africa and Latin America where China is making major investments. Alternatively, he said, China could simply decide to withdraw from the treaty. Public opinion, he said, won’t be factor. “There isn’t going to be World War Three over this,” he said. “There isn’t going to be a single shot fired.”

“At this point in time, we have no indication that the Chinese are intent on laying political claims to the Moon,” said Cheng.

What those Chinese actions would do, though, he said, was restore a “fear factor” kind of motivation for American space efforts that has been lacking since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago. He opened his talk by suggesting that the United States had weakened in recent years because of a variety of factors, ranging from increasing entitlement spending and “damaging growth” of the national debt to a lack of quality in the nation’s education system to even a “cultural bias towards socialism.” The fear instilled by China claiming the Moon, he suggested, could reinvigorate the space program and the country in the same way the space race with the Soviet Union did in the 1960s.

Even that motivation, though, would be too late for the Moon, he said. “It may, and probably will be, much too late for the Americans to respond to China securing the Moon,” he said. “However, Mars will likely still be available.” A push to Mars, he suggested, could be funded by redirection of 10 percent of the current defense budget to space exploration.

His conclusions about Chinese plans, he said, came not from any special intelligence about their long-term goals—he said after his speech that “there is absolutely nothing that I’ve come across” that supports this—but instead from an analysis of Chinese history, behavior, and the current space efforts. “I’m connecting the dots,” he said.

Bigelow’s ISPCS speech is not the first time he’s publicly talked about China making claims on the Moon. He gave a similar speech in February before the 14th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, where he also predicted China making property claims on the Moon by the mid-2020s. This speech, though, gained more media attention.

However, experts on China’s space program interviewed last week remain skeptical about the plan Bigelow laid out in those speeches. “At this point in time, we have no indication that the Chinese are intent on laying political claims to the Moon,” said Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation.

One issue is the lack of official information about Chinese plans for human lunar missions. “As far as current plans go, China has announced that a group of Chinese scientists interested in human lunar exploration has formed a working group to conduct a feasibility study for a human lunar mission. That is the extent of China’s announced efforts to date,” said Gregory Kulacki, Senior Analyst and China Project Manager with the Union of Concerned Scientists. The extent of official Chinese human spaceflight plans, he said, is construction of a space station in low Earth orbit, which “are anticipated to fully employ the available fiscal, human, and technical resources of the Chinese human space flight program until well into the middle of the next decade.”

“I'd say that a Chinese lunar expedition (manned) is unlikely before, say, 2025, which assumes that China sustains an interest and financial wherewithal for such a task,” Cheng said. “We don’t have a good sense of long-term Chinese space ambitions, although it is fascinating that we keep hearing all sorts of claims from people who arguably should know what they're talking about.”

“I’d love to be proven absolutely wrong, that there’s no way this could possibly happen,” said Bigelow. “But I’ve thought about this for two years, and I can’t defeat it.”

Another obstacle to Bigelow’s vision of Chinese plans is the country’s internal pressures. “China must attend to the basic human needs of more than 1.3 billion—compared to a US population of 308 million—with an economy that while second only to that of the United States is still only one-third as large ($5 trillion to $15 trillion),” Kulacki said. That’s coupled with a political system that, among other issues, is “slow to change and moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

“Bigelow exaggerates Chinese accomplishments and capabilities while underestimating their liabilities and failures,” Kulacki concluded.

Cheng said he does agree with one conclusion by Bigelow, that China will not simply follow in American footsteps and duplicate its accomplishments. “So, they’ll be thinking bigger and flashier,” he said. “Probably a longer-term stay on the Moon, and quite possibly the first Moon colony.”

Cheng believes the bigger issue may not be a competition between China and the United States, but between China and emerging commercial space ventures, like Bigelow Aerospace. “The Chinese would very much prefer a world where all the competition is nation-state-based,” he said. “A Bigelow space hotel, [Elon] Musk’s SpaceX worries the heck out of them.”

Bigelow, in comments after his ISPCS speech, said he hopes his vision of Chinese lunar ambitions is wrong. “My purpose is to get conversation going, to get people to question whether or not what I said has any chance,” he said. “I’d love to be proven absolutely wrong, that there’s no way this could possibly happen. But I’ve thought about this for two years, and I can’t defeat it.”

“I’m just trying to get the conversation going,” he said. That goal, at least, has been accomplished.