NASA Boss Says US Astronauts Will Beat China Back to the Moon Despite Artemis Delays

Written by staff writer.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson says the recently announced delayed launch of Artemis II and III won’t give China the lead in the race to return humans to the Moon.

“I am not concerned that China is going to land before us,” Nelson said during a January 10, 2024, media briefing. “I think that China has a very aggressive plan. They would like to land before us because that would give them a PR coup, but I don’t think they will.”

During the same briefing, the US space agency NASA announced a nearly 12-month delay to Artemis II and III. Citing technical and safety reasons, Artemis II is now pencilled in to launch in September 2025. Artemis III, which aims to land astronauts near the lunar South Pole, is shooting for September 2026. Artemis IV, the first mission to the Gateway lunar space station, remains on track for 2028.

“We don’t fly until it’s ready,” an unapologetic Nelson told journalists. “Safety is paramount. Regardless of what’s happening in China, whether we fly in September 2026 and land will come down to whether we are ready.”

Meanwhile, their Chinese counterparts, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) wants to land its astronauts on the Moon by 2030 and, in partnership with Russia, construct a base on the Moon sometime next decade. It parallels US ambitions to establish a permanent presence on the Moon.

In the shorter term, China is asserting its space credentials by sending the Chang’e 6 spacecraft to the far side of the Moon in the first half of this year to collect samples from its surface. While China, the United States, and the former USSR have returned samples from the Moon, none have done so from the relatively unexplored far side.

The Chinese also rejected recent claims by Nicholas Burns, the US Ambassador to China, who told a Washington D.C. audience that China was interested in working with the US space sector. A CNSA spokesperson said he was “bewildered” by the comments.

The spokesperson said the Chinese government has always been committed to exploring and using outer space for peaceful purposes, including international space exchanges.

He also took aim at the lack of engagement by the United States after it made efforts to set up a civil space dialogue mechanism in 2015. “China responded actively,” the CSNA spokesperson said. “So far, three dialogue meetings have been held, but the fourth one to be hosted by the United States has not yet been convened, despite China’s repeated efforts.”

The US State Department, responsible for managing the space dialogue mechanism, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nelson acknowledges the Chinese are making progress on their mission to the Moon, bringing dates forward rather than extending timelines. But if the amended Artemis II timeline sticks, he is confident NASA will get boots on the Moon before their rivals. “The US landing in September 2026 will be the first,” he said.


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