NASA Had Two Major Short-Term Goals, but China Is Threatening to Beat Them Both

  • Is it time to say goodbye to NASA’s supremacy? China's advances puts the landing of the first woman on the Moon in jeopardy.

  • More importantly, the Mars Sample Return mission is in trouble, too.

NASA had two major short-term goals, but China is threatening to beat them both
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It's not unusual for China to reach milestones in space exploration that the U.S. has yet to achieve, such as successfully landing on the far side of the Moon or returning samples to Earth from the youngest regions of the Moon. But what if China hits where it hurts the most?

NASA's two most significant exploration missions are to bring the rock samples that the Perseverance rover is collecting on Mars back to Earth and to return to the Moon after 50 years and put the first woman on the its surface. With the space agency's budget problems and delays by its partners, China is more likely to get both missions done before NASA does.

Mars Sample Return

Eclipsed by the fame of Ingenuity, its smaller companion, NASA’s Perseverance rover has done a brilliant job of selecting Martian rock samples and depositing them in tubes on the surface of Mars. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will bring those samples back to Earth on the future Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

However, for budgetary reasons, NASA has paused MSR development after two panels of experts concluded that the mission could not be completed until 2040, at a price tag of between $8-11 billion, more than double what was planned.

Rovers on the Mars surface

What MSR is all about. The first mission to bring back samples from another planet is, as expected, quite complex, and has required changes in its design. Essentially, it consists of launching a European spacecraft, the Earth Returner Orbiter (ERO), and a U.S. spacecraft, the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL), to Mars to retrieve the tubes from the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface and bring them back to Earth for analysis.

Until last month, the plan was to launch the ERO in 2030 and keep it in orbit around the Red Planet while waiting for SLR. The Sample Retrieval Lander would launch in 2035 and descend to the Martian surface to collect up to 30 tubes left by Perseverance. If it's still operational at that time, the rover would be responsible for delivering these samples. Otherwise, two Ingenuity-like Sample Recovery Helicopters will collect them.

Originally, the European Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) was going to be responsible for collecting the samples. However, NASA decided to take it out of the equation to lighten the load on the SLR, which had to carry its rocket to return from the surface of Mars to orbit with the samples. That rocket is the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which, once in orbit, would deliver the tubes to the European ERO spacecraft for return to Earth.

NASA is turning to the private sector for help. With the mission on hold, NASA has issued a call for ideas from the private sector on how to recover at least 10 of Perseverance’s sample tubes without spending $11 billion and, most importantly, without waiting until 2040, the year the space agency planned to have astronauts on Mars.

Since the main problem with the mission is the weight of the MAV, one of the first industry players to respond was SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. “Starship has the potential to return tons of cargo from Mars in about five years,” Musk told NASA in a post on X in mid-April.

It would not be unreasonable to redesign the MSR mission to take advantage of the cargo capacity of SpaceX’s spacecraft. NASA is already funding Starship's development through the HLS lunar program. But Starship has more pressing challenges, which we'll discuss below.

China's Zhurong rover on Mars. China's Zhurong rover on Mars.

China is leading the race. One of the immediate consequences of leaving the future of the MSR mission open is China. The country is leading the race to bring back samples from another planet with its Tianwen-3 mission.

Tianwen-3 begins with the launch of two spacecraft to Mars in 2030. One will descend to the planet’s surface, collect samples with a drill, and launch on a rocket to return to orbit. The other will retrieve the samples and return them to Earth.

It's a simpler mission because it doesn't have to perform the rock selection work that the Perseverance rover did. Indeed, this simplicity gives it an advantage over NASA and ESA’s MSR mission.

Artemis III

In the middle of all this chaos, there's also a rumor. NASA is purportedly exploring alternatives to the Artemis III Moon landing if SpaceX’s Starship—the super heavy-lift launch vehicle—isn't ready in time. Scheduled for September 2026, Artemis III would take the U.S. back to the Moon and mark the first time a woman and a person of color set foot there.

Artemis III

What is Artemis III? In the third Artemis mission, NASA will launch four astronauts to the Moon aboard a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and an Orion spacecraft. Once in lunar orbit, Orion will dock with a SpaceX Starship HLS spacecraft, which will allow two astronauts descend to the south pole lunar surface.

The two NASA astronauts will spend a few days on Earth’s natural satellite before returning to Orion. To do this, the Starship HLS will activate its methane and liquid oxygen engines and return to lunar orbit.

NASA’s proposed changes. With the development of Axiom’s extravehicular suits and the delay of SpaceX’s Starship, NASA is looking for alternatives to the lunar lander internally. Although unconfirmed, the options would be much less ambitious:

  • One option is to launch Orion into low Earth orbit and dock with a Starship launched separately by SpaceX. During this Apollo 9-like mission, NASA would validate Orion's and Starship's ability to anchor and transfer astronauts, as well as Starship's ability to carry crew, but only around the Earth at an altitude of a few hundred kilometers.
  • Another option is for Artemis III to eliminate Starship and become a non-landing mission, where the astronauts would dock with the Orion spacecraft to a primitive version of the Gateway lunar station in orbit around the Moon.

It's impractical to use the SLS rocket, which costs billions of dollars per launch, to send an Orion spacecraft into low Earth orbit, something a Falcon 9 could do for $60 million. But the first option somehow makes a lot of sense.

NASA had planned Artemis III without prior flight testing of Orion docking with SpaceX's spacecraft or astronaut transfer. The only thing scheduled is a SpaceX lunar landing demonstration by 2025. A modern version of Apollo 9 would significantly reduce the risk.

Chinese lunar spacecraft Mengzhou and Lanyue. Chinese lunar spacecraft Mengzhou and Lanyue.

China also has options in this mission. No one will take the title of the first country on the Moon from the U.S. However, China could put the first woman on the lunar surface, depending on the maturity of SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon spacecraft in 2030.

As with the Mars Sample Retrieval Mission, China has a simpler alternative for returning to the Moon in 2030. The China Manned Space Agency’s (CMSA) first lunar mission will launch two spacecraft: an orbiter called Mengzhou (梦舟), which means “dream ship” and a lander called Lanyue (揽月), or “embrace the Moon.”

Two 295-feet (90-meter) Long March 10 rockets will launch the spacecraft separately. Mengzhou will host three astronauts who will travel from Earth to lunar orbit. Lanyue will land two of them on the lunar surface. It will then take them back to Mengzhou and then to Earth.

It’s not the 1960s, but there is a new space race, and everything indicates that the country that invests the most will be the one to win it.

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