The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Moon has become a new front in the 21st-century space race.

The Odysseus lander’s historic touchdown at the Moon’s south pole on February 22nd by Intuitive Machines, a Texas-based company, signifies a momentous milestone in America’s space exploration—a return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo missions of the 1970s, and an unprecedented achievement by a private company. This event marks a pivotal resurgence in the space race, now charged with complex geopolitical nuances.

This achievement does not merely echo the grand victories of the Cold War space race but signals the United States’ renewed commitment to lunar exploration, intending to send astronauts back to the Moon within this decade. The Odysseus, an uncrewed robot lander, underscores the competitive advancements in space exploration, with Japan, China, and India asserting their lunar ambitions. Despite these developments, the United States continues to stand alone as the only nation to have sent humans to the Moon’s surface.

This landmark mission is part of NASA’s Artemis program, designed to accelerate the return of astronauts to the Moon and ultimately to Mars. The mission is a testament to the power of NASA’s commercial partnerships and America’s continued leadership in space exploration. The crewed Artemis mission, slated for late 2026, aims to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon as a precursor to the next great leap to Mars.

The choice of the Moon’s south pole for the landing site was strategic, based on the potential for frozen water which could be critical for life support and rocket fuel, enhancing the prospects for future manned missions to Mars. NASA, while a pivotal player in space exploration, is complemented by the strategic vision of the U.S. Space Force, which aims to integrate military capability with space exploration to maintain American dominance in space.

Russia’s recent failure with its Luna 25 mission starkly contrasts with America’s success, underscoring the challenging nature of space exploration. The success of the Odysseus lander heralds a new era in space travel, promising cost-effective and expansive solar system exploration.

The revival of space dominance is spurred by global competition for technological leadership, military capability, and the strategic value of lunar resources. NASA’s vision includes fostering an American-led lunar economy, where private companies are incentivized to innovate and compete.

As the global community witnessed a new wave of lunar exploration, with India and Japan’s recent achievements and China’s longstanding rover presence, the United States remains the preeminent power with a legacy of technological and scientific precedents that continue to set the standard for space exploration.

China’s Chang’e-6 mission, set to collect lunar samples in 2024, India’s Chandrayaan-3, and the collaborative potential among the Quad alliance members showcase a shared ambition for resilient space capabilities. These nations are collectively focused on the pursuit of lunar water ice, which is seen as a vital component for future human settlements on the Moon and missions to Mars.

Despite China’s aspirations for collaboration in space exploration, geopolitical tensions and security concerns pose significant challenges to such partnerships. Beijing’s strategic initiatives in space are seen as direct challenges to American supremacy, with advancements in missile technology and satellite capabilities that have military applications.

China’s space achievements, such as its rover on the Moon’s far side and the Tiangong space station, reflect its growing space ambitions. However, the United States continues to promote an inclusive approach to space exploration through the Artemis Accords, which outline norms for peaceful exploration and have attracted the support of numerous countries, though not China.

The Moon’s resources, including rare-earth metals and helium-3, have the potential to revolutionize Earth’s energy landscape. The Moon is also envisioned as a refueling station for deeper space exploration, reinforcing its strategic importance.

The competition for space supremacy and lunar dominance heralds a new era of strategic rivalry with profound implications for global power dynamics. The nation that achieves a significant lunar presence will not only demonstrate technological and political strength but will also lead in a new domain of energy, military, and strategic capabilities.

Looking ahead, the United States’ role in space exploration is paramount, and the achievements of NASA and the James Webb Telescope are just the beginning. The Moon and Mars are the first steps in a journey into the vastness of space, with the United States at the forefront, guiding humanity into an era where the quest for knowledge and power is as boundless as the universe itself.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.