China, Russia Lay Out Joint Plans To Explore the Moon While China Launches First Crew to Tianhe

China, Russia Lay Out Joint Plans To Explore the Moon While China Launches First Crew to Tianhe

China and Russia laid out their roadmap for joint exploration of the Moon this morning, hours before China launched the first crew to its new space station module, Tianhe. The Chinese-Russian International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) concept exemplifies China’s modestly-paced human spaceflight cadence, with the first human missions to the Moon not envisioned until the mid-2030s. That may undermine arguments that the United States is in a race with China and needs to get astronauts back to the Moon by 2024 before they arrive.

Officials from the China National Space Administration (CNSA) took the lead today in explaining ILRS at a joint session with Russia’s Roscosmos at IAF’s Global Space Exploration (GLEX) conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Coincidentally, the session took place just before China launched its first crew into space in five years. The three-man Shenzhou-12 crew lifted off at 9:22 pm EDT tonight. They will dock with the Tianhe space station module in 6-7 hours for a three month stay.

Launch of Shenzhou-12 three-man crew from Jiuquan, June 16, 2021 EDT (June 17 UTC and Beijing Time). Screengrab from CGTN.

Tianhe is the first of three modules that will comprise the Chinese Space Station (CSS). That is China’s first priority for human spaceflight, but it has bigger plans for the future in cooperation with Russia.

The two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in March to create ILRS and invited other countries to join them. Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos, said at GLEX yesterday they are already working with the European Space Agency (ESA). Roscosmos and ESA currently are partners in the ExoMars 2022 lander/rover mission to Mars, launching next year.

NASA’s Artemis program is also aimed at lunar exploration with international partners so some see ILRS as competition and getting “boots on the Moon” — or back on the Moon in the case of the United States since U.S. astronauts have landed there six times already — as a race. The schedule laid out today does not suggest that at all.

NASA’s goal is to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024 as the first step in a long-term, sustainable program of lunar exploration and utilization. An armada of robotic landers and rovers will precede as well as accompany the human missions. The first will launch this year with two per year thereafter.

The China/Russia ILRS similarly has robotic and human components, but it is entirely robotic until 2036.

The Soviet Union sent many robotic orbiters, landers, rovers and sample return missions to the Moon at the beginning of the Space Age, but the most recent, Luna 24, was in 1976. It is gearing up to resume those missions, with Luna 25 expected to launch later this year followed by Lunar 26 and 27 before 2025.

China’s robotic lunar program is already underway. The Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 landers/rovers are on the Moon’s surface right now.  The Queqiao data relay satellite is in lunar orbit to provide communications between Earth and Chang’e-4, the first spacecraft to land on the Moon’s far side. Chang’e-5 returned samples from the Moon last year. Chang’e-6 and -7  are in development.

The Luna 25-27 and Chang’e-6 and -7 probes are included in the ILRS roadmap as part of the first of three phases of the ILRS — Reconnaissance — between now and 2025 as shown in a series of slides presented by CNSA today.

Phase 2 is Construction, from 2026-2035, and is broken down into two stages. The first stage from 2026-2030 envisions the launch of two more capable lander/rovers, Chang’e-8 and Luna 28.  The second stage from 2031-2035 will see landing a wide array of surface vehicles and equipment for transportation, power, research, and verification of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies to extract and utilize lunar materials.

Phase 3, Utilization, described simply as “after 2036,” is when astronauts will visit the lunar surface for short stays.

A short English-language video explaining the plan was played at GLEX and later tweeted by Roscosmos.

Asked directly when China would land its first astronaut on the Moon, CNSA’s Yu Yanhua said such plans are only in the “preparatory” stage, stressing CSS is the priority now for human spaceflight. For the Moon, “we are still focusing on unmanned lunar exploration as the priority of our work in the near 10 years.”

CSS is in an early state. The first module, Tianhe, was launched in April. A cargo/refueling spacecraft, Tianzhou-2, docked in May. Today, China launched the first crew on Shenzhou-12. They will live there for three months. The other two modules are due for launch in the next year. Each is 22.5 Metric Tons (MT), a significant improvement over China’s previous two space stations (8.5 MT each), but much smaller than the 400 MT ISS.

Shenzhou-12 is China’s first crewed spaceflight in five years. In fact, until today China launched only six human spaceflight missions over the past 18 years. It is very modestly-paced program and the ILRS is no different.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is seeking additional funding from Congress to help ensure the United States can get astronauts back to the Moon by 2024 before China gets there, but the roadmap laid out today does not support the idea that a Moon race is underway.

At a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee yesterday, Nelson again urged Congress to add money to the jobs/infrastructure bill to pay for a second company to build a Human Landing System (HLS) to raise the odds of getting there by 2024. NASA decided in April that it had enough money to award only one contract because Congress provided just 25 percent of the funding NASA requested for HLS in FY2021. NASA had wanted two contractors to provide redundancy and competition.

HLS is critical to returning crews to the lunar surface.  They will arrive in lunar orbit via an Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System, but HLS is needed to take the crew from orbit down to and back from the surface.  Nelson wants $5 billion more this year so NASA can select a second contractor.

Even with that money, Nelson agrees 2024 will be a challenge because “space is hard,” but to have any hope, the additional money is needed right now, not in the FY2022 budget that could take many months to finalize.  He told the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee last month and the Senate subcommittee yesterday that the solution is putting the money in the pending jobs/infrastructure bill.

I think you’re going to see a very aggressive China. You’re going to see a Chinese government that understands all the value of the success in space. We’ve already seen how they are glowing in the afterglow of their landing on Mars, with a [robotic] rover. I think you’re going to see an aggressive program of them landing on the Moon. I am stating what is out there already in the press. And so I think that’s going to become a question for you all as policymakers. What is the value to the United States that we get back to the moon first and get on with this program in preparation to go to Mars. — Bill Nelson

He is asking for a total of $11.7 billion for HLS and other NASA needs. CJS subcommittee chair Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) reminded her former Senate colleague that her subcommittee has no jurisdiction over the jobs bill.

The crux of the matter may turn out to be exactly what Nelson said — how much does Congress value getting back to the Moon before China — but the ILRS roadmap presented today offers little support for the argument China and Russia are trying to get there by 2024.

Nelson will testify to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee next week.  Committee chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) has been one of the most vocal critics of what she considers the “arbitrary” 2024 deadline.  She called a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Artemis a “wake-up call” to NASA and Congress that the program is “in serious trouble.” It will interesting to see what Nelson will say now that the ILRS roadmap is public.

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