Expert Voices

Are we prepared for Chinese preeminence on the moon and Mars? (op-ed)

an illustration of a Chinese moon base
Artist's illustration of a possible Chinese moon base. (Image credit: gremlin/Getty Images)

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and author of "The Music of Space" and "Alcohol in Space." Joe Cassady is Director, Civil Space at L3Harris as well as Executive VP of Explore Mars, Inc. They contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The United States appears to be entering the golden age of space exploration. Over the past few years, the nation has conducted an unprecedented number of launches, countless space hardware developments, and notched innumerable other milestones. Nevertheless, despite these accomplishments, the United States could lose its decades-old leadership in space exploration and technology to China. 

The People's Republic of China (PRC) is making steady drives forward in all aspects of human and robotics capabilities. China's space accomplishments over the past few years include the success of the Long March 5B heavy-lift vehicle and the construction of the Tiangong space station. In 2019, China became the first nation to successfully "soft-land" a vehicle, the robotic Chang'e 4 rover-lander duo, on the far side of the moon. Then, a year later, the Chang'e 5 mission successfully accomplished a sample-return mission from the moon. 

Related: China moving at 'breathtaking speed' in final frontier, Space Force says

More recently, on March 20, 2024, China launched its relay satellite, Queqiao-2. This accomplishment will enable the Chinese to conduct operations on the far side of the moon, and lays the groundwork for the Chang'e 6 lunar far side sample return mission later this year, to be followed by the Chang'e 7 lander and rover in 2026 and the Chang'e 8 mission in 2028, which will include a lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) demonstration. China has also announced a goal for surface missions by Chinese taikonauts, possibly by 2030. And, as the United States and its partners continue to struggle with achieving a Mars Sample Return mission, China has announced its goal to conduct such a mission in 2030.

While these accomplishments still pale by comparison to those of the United States over the past 60 years, the rate at which the Chinese have been catching up is alarming. According to a 2022 Pentagon report, the U.S. could lose its lead in space technology as soon as 2045. The report notes that, while U.S. industrial capacity is expanding, "the upward trajectory of the People's Republic of China…is even steeper, with a significant rate of overtake, requiring urgent action." The report added that "the U.S. lacks a clear and cohesive long-term vision, a grand strategy for space that sustains economic, technological, environmental, social and military (defense) leadership for the next half century and beyond."

Learn more about the 2024 Humans to Mars summit here. (Image credit: ExploreMars.Org)

Why is this important? Investment in space exploration and development capabilities is an investment in the country. These endeavors bolster innovation and new markets, as well as national standing, diplomacy and national security, while at the same time assure that the United States remains the undisputed leader in scientific discovery, inspiration and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. And while NASA is a civilian space agency, we can't ignore the broader implications of surrendering our lead in space. According to the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission's report to Congress, "Beijing has specific plans not merely to explore space, but to industrially dominate the space within the moon's orbit of Earth. China has invested significant resources in exploring the national security and economic value of this area, including its potential for space-based manufacturing, resource extraction, and power generation, although experts differ on the feasibility of some of these activities."

The good news is that the United States still has a clear advantage in this competition. Over the past several years, we have seen the successful launch of the Artemis 1 mission, with Artemis 2 and 3 scheduled to occur by the end of 2027. Meanwhile, commercial entities are launching at an unprecedented rate, significantly expanding our overall national capacity to reach space. In short, this is our race to lose.

Related: NASA's Artemis program: Everything you need to know

Given the progress that the United States has made in developing space infrastructure and capabilities in recent years, why are we at risk of being surpassed? Dean Cheng of the U.S. Institute of Peace told us thatpart of the problem is, “while people are interested in space, it is not as in the public imagination and concern as it was during the Space Race of the 1960s, when there were space launches every few weeks. Ironically, because space has become more routinized, there is less concern about competition.” With so many other major national issues that hold center stage, the Administration and Congress also do not appear to be appropriately focused and motivated in what truly constitutes the new Space Race. Stable bipartisan support remains, but we seem to lack a sense of national urgency.

Nevertheless, unlike most domestic programs, our plan to send humans to the moon and Mars is something of a "unicorn" in our divisive political environment. It represents a program and an objective that has had strong bipartisan support for over a decade. This rare example of political solidarity should not be ignored. It should be embraced as evidence that our elected officials can unite on some issues — and in so doing, help to solidify our national standing for decades to come.

However, we must not repeat the policy mistakes of the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s. While Apollo successfully landed crews on the moon by the end of the 1960s, it was not a sustainable program from a budgetary or political perspective. Upwards of 4%of the annual federal budget was committed to Apollo (as compared to NASA's current budget of less than 0.5% of the federal budget). The program also only had one significant political objective — to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. It succeeded spectacularly in this regard. It was unquestionably a major milestone in human history. But after its success and the realization that the Soviet Union was abandoning its lunar aspirations, there remained little political motivation to continue the program, and it was abruptly halted.

NASA's current budget is unlikely to increase dramatically in the near future, but the United States can nevertheless still build a sustainable program that ensures that we retain our hard-earned status as the preeminent space nation. Rather than the military-like campaign of the Apollo program, we have a chance to prevail by harnessing the ingenuity and capabilities of our U.S. commercial industry and our international partners. By doing so, we simultaneously advance a vital national interest but also stimulate innovative new markets and strengthen our international alliances. 

Are there risks? Of course. Virtually every great human accomplishment has required innumerable forms of risk. However, by accepting these risks, we will give ourselves a very real chance that the rest of the 21st century will not only be an American century but one where we have nurtured major new markets and created stronger international relations.

Note: An expert panel will be discussing this topic at the 2024 Humans to Mars Summit taking place on May 7-8, 2024 at the Jack Morton Auditorium, at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Chris Carberry
CEO and co-founder of Explore Mars, Inc.

Chris Carberry is the CEO and co-founder of Explore Mars, Inc. (Explore Mars), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit space advocacy. In this role, he has overseen Explore Mars’ annual Humans to Mars Summit, the largest annual conference focused on sending humans to Mars, and has spearheaded dozens of programs, projects, and outreach efforts. Prior to joining Explore Mars, Carberry served as Executive Director of The Mars Society. Carberry has presented oral (and written) testimony to both the United States Senate as well as the United States House of Representatives. He is also the author of over 100 articles that have appeared in publications around the world and has been featured in over 100 national and international television, radio programs and podcasts. Carberry is the author of the 2019 book "Alcohol in Space: Past, Present and Future," which is currently being adapted into documentary film that will be released in 2023. Carberry also has two books scheduled for release: "Scoring Space" (2023) and "A Future Spacefaring Society" (2024).

  • Unclear Engineer
    I note that it has been quite a while since has even provided an update article on the SpaceX StarShip development program. With Musk saying he wants to launch the 4th test flight in early May, it seems strangely silent here on

    And, then there is the FAA announcement that it now will require a reentry license before liftoff for anything that has a planned reentry. So far, that only includes Varda and SpaceX Dragon capsules.

    So, is this going to be yet another bureaucratic hang-up for SpaceX StarShip test flights? And, how about those long-delayed Boeing Starliner test flights?

    While I am not opposed to the FAA needing to approve reentry plans, I am a bit concerned that some of the anti-Musk crowd may try to use this as a 'catch-22" to say that something is not a proven reentry vehicle unless it has been demonstrated to be successful at reentry, which it cannot do without at test flight, of course.
  • TheCoolBrit
    If you exclude SpaceX as your article did, there have been 6 US launches in 2024, 4 were Rocketlab Electrons.
  • orsobubu
    It is exactly the "chance to prevail" on each other that will bring mankind to its ruin, and people allow themselves to be divided between nations, just for the benefit of a few, what colossal stupidity and cowardice
  • Atlan0001
    As an American history and frontier advocate for Mankind's breakout into the universe I cannot shed a single tear or word of detestation over China's competitiveness, and its will, to go for it for its people while Western governments put everyone's feet in cement and want containment of the human species to the Earth for some impossible Utopian good of Mankind (that will always end in an Orwellian Dystopian now and future, the decline of dynamic Civilization (aka decline of 'Frontier' Civilization)).
  • billslugg
    "Sir, I have a Mr. Orwell on line 1, he just got woken up, wants to know why. Should I just tell him ignorance is strength?"
  • Atlan0001
    Behind an Iron Curtain in a closed world system bubble of countless negatively entropic iron curtain invulnerable bubbles without frontier, you can only do so much ever-increasing, growing, borrowing energies and wealth from the future . . . energies and wealth that would be yours without borrowing with an opening frontier system of space, time, energies and, thus, wealth.
  • Atlan0001
    billslugg said:
    "Sir, I have a Mr. Orwell on line 1, he just got woken up, wants to know why. Should I just tell him ignorance is strength?"
    Bill, I would give you a like if you weren't potentially quoting him right back to him! Err, to his ghost calling on line 1!
  • billslugg
    Bill is not here right now, he has broken out into the Universe and we can't get ahold of him. His cell phone plan only goes as far as Jupiter, Saturn after 7 Eastern and all day on weekends and holidays. Goldstone tracking station data plan rates go way up on week days. Plus it takes two days to get an answer from that far. Plus he takes lots of naps.
  • Atlan0001
    Bill, I just had to give it to you, anyway. Couldn't help myself. It was that right . . . a hit dead center on the nail!
  • m4n8tpr8
    I have great doubts about the US effort, chiefly because of the Moon lander. Elon Musk just let it slip that the current model of Starship is underperforming, both in terms of its thrust rating and especially in its lifting capacity, and announced that a "Starship 2" and a "Raptor 3" have to be developed to meet the original goals. Thus we are far away from meeting any of NASA's benchmarks (orbital flight, ship-to-ship refuelling, Moon orbit, Moon landing).

    I have great doubts about the landing capability of the basic design: high centre of gravity, descent/ascent for astronauts. I have even greater doubts about the flight back to orbit: the rocks & regolith kicked up by these - relative to Apollo's LEM - giant engines are likely to damage those same engines. And even if Blue Origin's lunar lander gets to the Moon first, although it is much smaller, it too uses the same unprotected engines for landing & ascent, so it could have the same problem.