The dark side of moon exploration

Jessica West Featured, Research in Action, Space Security

By Jessica West

In the summer of 1969, the first human landed on the moon. Now, as the world celebrates that important milestone, a new moon race is developing.

This race is different. Rather than a sprint to the finish line, today’s race is a marathon. The goal is not just to get there, but to stay, creating a permanent human presence on the moon and beyond, within the next decade. While cooperation is essential to space exploration, this new race shows signs of reviving the existential competition of the past. The United States aims for pre-eminence in space. For China, space is part of comprehensive national power. Growing emphasis on outer space as a domain of warfare is fuelling a new arms race that risks military confrontation. How these tensions will interact with lunar exploration — and commercial ambitions — is not clear. The stakes have never been higher.

The first moon race unfolded in a world facing nuclear annihilation. The humans in today’s moon race face not only the prospect of nuclear war, but a self-inflicted climate crisis. Now, as then, the destruction of humanity seems possible, even imminent. The ability to access new worlds and planets can inspire — and may sustain — a new future. But we must avoid repeating past mistakes.

The new space race is about much more than flags and footprints: it’s a scramble for resources. Future moon missions are focused almost exclusively on the lunar south pole. Why? Because we know that it contains resources, including water ice necessary to sustain humans and to fuel spacecraft for longer journeys, and helium-3, a gas that may be capable of fuelling power through nuclear fusion.

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Photo: An oblique view of the Crater Daedalus on the lunar farside as seen from the Apollo 11 spacecraft in lunar orbit. Daedalus (formerly referred to as Crater No. 308) is has a diameter of about 50 miles. This is a typical scene showing the rugged terrain on the farside of the moon. NASA

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