Analysis

A Chinese-Russian Moon Base? Not So Fast.

Plans to compete with NASA’s lunar exploration project face substantial obstacles.

By , the associate editor for technology and security at the Georgetown Security Studies Review.
Artist's rendering of a lunar exploration base.
Artist's rendering of a lunar exploration base. NASA/Dennis Davidson

In June, China and Russia unveiled a road map for a plan for a joint moon base dubbed the International Lunar Research Station, the latest example of burgeoning Sino-Russian cooperation and a direct challenge to the United States’ own plan for a moon base. “More than six decades ago, brave men began their exploration of the moon.” the Chinese-Russian announcement video said. “This time we come with greater courage, stronger determination, and more ambitious goals.”

The plan is stunning in its ambition—a multidecade, multilateral effort consisting of 14 missions and culminating in a potential manned base—making it the largest cooperative project between China and Russia in space. This effort follows a trend of increased Sino-Russian cooperation in economic, military, and diplomatic spheres. To Americans, it is a challenge: The two primary U.S. adversaries are collaborating on a high-tech endeavor in an attempt to outmatch NASA’s lunar base plans—part of the Artemis program—and wrest leadership in space exploration away from the United States. The Sino-Russian lunar base and the Artemis program both aim to recruit a global coalition of states to construct a lunar research base on the moon’s south pole. Beyond science and exploration, these efforts are about national prestige, spurring new technologies and industry, experimenting with resource extraction, and setting the groundwork for other missions to the moon and to Mars.

There has been minimal response from governments around the world, and no country has yet taken up China and Russia on their invitation to participate in the lunar research station. Governments considering a response—such as European countries that are reportedly “discussing the proposal”—are presumably occupied with the same question: Will this plan succeed, or is it hot air from propagandists in Beijing and Moscow? A detailed look at the plan reveals that it faces numerous significant hurdles judging from the checkered history of Sino-Russian space cooperation, the daunting technical barriers the plan faces, and the delicate political balance that must continue for the project to succeed.

In June, China and Russia unveiled a road map for a plan for a joint moon base dubbed the International Lunar Research Station, the latest example of burgeoning Sino-Russian cooperation and a direct challenge to the United States’ own plan for a moon base. “More than six decades ago, brave men began their exploration of the moon.” the Chinese-Russian announcement video said. “This time we come with greater courage, stronger determination, and more ambitious goals.”

The plan is stunning in its ambition—a multidecade, multilateral effort consisting of 14 missions and culminating in a potential manned base—making it the largest cooperative project between China and Russia in space. This effort follows a trend of increased Sino-Russian cooperation in economic, military, and diplomatic spheres. To Americans, it is a challenge: The two primary U.S. adversaries are collaborating on a high-tech endeavor in an attempt to outmatch NASA’s lunar base plans—part of the Artemis program—and wrest leadership in space exploration away from the United States. The Sino-Russian lunar base and the Artemis program both aim to recruit a global coalition of states to construct a lunar research base on the moon’s south pole. Beyond science and exploration, these efforts are about national prestige, spurring new technologies and industry, experimenting with resource extraction, and setting the groundwork for other missions to the moon and to Mars.

There has been minimal response from governments around the world, and no country has yet taken up China and Russia on their invitation to participate in the lunar research station. Governments considering a response—such as European countries that are reportedly “discussing the proposal”—are presumably occupied with the same question: Will this plan succeed, or is it hot air from propagandists in Beijing and Moscow? A detailed look at the plan reveals that it faces numerous significant hurdles judging from the checkered history of Sino-Russian space cooperation, the daunting technical barriers the plan faces, and the delicate political balance that must continue for the project to succeed.

The proposed lunar base would be the most significant Sino-Russian cooperative venture in space—by a considerable margin. Previous cooperation between the two powers has yielded mixed success. In 1957, the Soviet Union and China signed the New Defense Technical Accord, whereby Moscow provided Beijing with nuclear and missile-related capabilities. Chinese scientists, directed by Mao Zedong, began researching satellites and expected Russian assistance. In 1958, the CIA speculated that substantial Russian assistance could allow China to launch a satellite by 1959 or 1960. However, when Chinese scientists visited Moscow a few months later, they were given the cold shoulder: They were not allowed to view satellite designs or launch sites and were advised to give up on satellites. By 1960, Soviet advisors left China due to the deepening political fissure between the two leading communist states, ending hopes for space cooperation.

It is no secret that Beijing is the senior party in project, has a better resourced space program, and is advancing at a faster rate.

Over the succeeding decades, the Soviet Union’s focus was squarely on competition with the United States while China advanced its own indigenous space program. The next period of cooperation was in the mid-1990s, when Russia sold space technology—including designs for the Soyuz capsule—which accelerated China’s development of a manned space program.

In 2007, China and Russia signed an agreement for “joint Chinese-Russian exploration of Mars,” culminating in a 2011 launch of a Mars orbiter and landing craft. However, the Russian rocket malfunctioned, causing Russian and Chinese spacecraft to come crashing back down to Earth, an embarrassing conclusion to both countries’ first attempt to reach the red planet.

Building and maintaining a lunar base would require massive financial investment, the development of new technologies, and substantial advances in rocket technology by both China and Russia. There is no public budget for the project, but it would surely require tens of billions of dollars. For comparison, NASA estimates that the Artemis program will cost $86 billion by 2025.

Russia’s space program is severely cash-strapped and has seen it’s budget fall 18 percent since 2014, with deeper cuts planned over the next three years. Funding difficulties have undermined Russian space priorities such as their flagship post-Soviet rocket, the Angara, which is already 16 years behind schedule.

China’s space program is better resourced—second only to the United States’ among national initiatives—and would probably finance most of the joint project, as Russian commentators have gleefully noted. But Beijing may prefer to finance other ongoing initiatives such as the Tiangong space station and its own high-profile Mars and lunar missions; similarly, Russia may allocate its limited resources toward a planned multibillion-dollar space station.

The lunar station plan would require both countries to develop new advanced modules. Extrapolating from the proposed diagram and Chinese academic writing on the subject, the project would require the development of space nuclear power, tunneling rovers, swarms of small autonomous robots, long-range communications systems, moon-based telescopes, resource extraction capabilities, and—if it is to support humans—a whole host of habitation technologies. These are ambitious capabilities for two countries that have only ever landed rovers on the moon.

This plan would also require China and Russia to successfully field new heavy-lift rockets in the early 2030s. China plans to use the Long March 9, which has been under development since 2011. China aims to have the system ready by 2030, leaving little margin for delays.

A bigger issue is Russia’s heavy-lift rocket. The project’s road map depicts a Russian Angara-class rocket that appears to be around 300 feet tall. No such rocket exists. In fact, the rocket seems to be a recycled and rescaled diagram of a long-discarded Angara rocket configuration. This suggests that either a new heavy-lift rocket will be constructed within the struggling Angara program or the diagram is a misleading placeholder for another developmental rocket. Neither scenario inspires confidence.

In any joint project, the most important determinant of success is the political will of both parties, which could be undermined in three main ways. The first is the domestic political situation in each country: Will other priorities take precedent over a joint lunar base and prompt either party to miss timelines or suspend participation, particularly since both countries will probably experience leadership changes over the decadeslong project?

The second consideration is the power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow, and how it evolves over the project’s duration of more than 20 years. It is no secret that Beijing is the senior party in project, has a better resourced space program, and is advancing at a faster rate. China had been discussing this lunar base since 2016 before inviting Russia to participate. Will China tolerate Russian partnership if Moscow’s tasks are persistently delayed? In an ominous start, Russia’s first contribution, the Luna-25 mission, has encountered “problems” and has been delayed seven months. On the flip side, will Russia—with its proud history of space exploration—tolerate playing second fiddle to the Chinese upstarts?

The third variable is whether both Russia and China will continue to view the United States as their primary geopolitical competitor in the coming decades. Mutual opposition to perceived U.S. space dominance has been the primary driver of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Forecasting power dynamics between great powers over a 20-year timeframe is an incredibly difficult—perhaps futile—effort, but one cannot simply assume stasis.

China and Russia are quick to promote their ambitious joint lunar project to the world, saying it will “benefit all mankind.” But the plan faces substantial, though not insurmountable, challenges, judging from the lackluster history of Sino-Russian space cooperation, financial and technical barriers, and the delicate political balance that the project requires. Other governments eyeing the Sino-Russian moon base as a competitive alternative to the Artemis program would do well to look again at the proposal’s viability and practical value.

Nathaniel Rome is a graduate student at Georgetown University and the associate editor for technology and security at the Georgetown Security Studies Review. Twitter: @Nathaniel_Rome

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.