China may get ahead in the new moon race, a US Senate subcommittee has been warned, due to inefficient government regulations in America slowing the development of the SpaceX Starship super heavy rocket.
“SpaceX is under contract with Nasa to use Starship to land American astronauts on the moon before China does,” Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice-president of build and flight reliability, told the US Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science on Wednesday.
“We’re undertaking a campaign that requires many early test flights to rapidly mature and prove out the critical systems needed to safely land Nasa astronauts on the lunar surface,” he said.
However, the 121m-tall, 5,000-tonne rocket has been sitting on its launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, ready for a second launch attempt since early September, while SpaceX continues to wait for approval to launch from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to Gerstenmaier.
He said though flight safety is important, so are innovation and maintaining US leadership in space.
“We are at an inflection point with incredible innovation in commercial space launch. The criticality is especially true in the face of strategic competition from state actors like China,” Gerstenmaier told the subcommittee.
“Licensing, including environmental approval, often takes longer than rocket development. This should never happen, and it’s only getting worse,” he said.
In 2021, SpaceX was chosen by Nasa to develop a moon lander version of Starship as part of the planned Artemis III mission in late 2025. The giant rocket will be responsible for transporting American astronauts between the lunar orbit and lunar surface, by first putting them down near the ice-rich south pole region and later launching them back to the lunar orbit for their return trip.
Even as Starship is facing regulatory hurdles – and technical ones which made Nasa officials openly worried about its readiness by 2025 – the US is still well ahead of China when it comes to preparing for a crewed moon landing.
China’s moon landing mission, which has an architecture similar to that of Artemis III, was only approved by the Chinese government earlier this year and is aiming for a launch date before 2030.
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Much of the rocket development work is still in its early stages.
“China is working on a new generation of rockets for crewed flights to the moon and low earth orbit,” Zhang Zhi, chief engineer of China’s launch vehicle systems, told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday.
“One model will have a lift-off thrust of over 2,600 tonnes, with the capacity to send 27 tonnes to lunar transfer orbit,” said Zhang, who designed Long March 2F rockets, China’s workhorse rocket for crewed flights with a 8.4-tonne launch capacity to low earth orbit.
Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut to enter space 20 years ago and now deputy chief designer of China’s manned space flight project, told CCTV that early preparations had started on the selection and training of astronauts for China’s moon landing mission, including developing moon suits and learning how to manoeuvre a rover on the lunar surface.
“Landing on the moon wouldn’t be our ultimate goal,” Yang said. “We’ll go explore deeper space and use resources from there to serve human society.”