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50 years after moon landing, US sees new space rival in China

Washington sets lofty goal of man on Mars, but can it pull off another lunar landing first?

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin climbs down from the lunar module during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing on Saturday, President Donald Trump seeks a repeat of America's win on the lunar surface  -- this time against China.

The last time the U.S. competed in a space race was during the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union shocked the U.S. by launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957. President John F. Kennedy made his famous pledge in front of Congress in 1961 to go to the moon by the end of the decade, a promise fulfilled by the Apollo 11 landing.

Now the Trump administration sees a new rival in China, which became the first country to land a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon in January.

"Just as the United States was the first nation to reach the moon in the 20th Century ... we'd be the first nation to return astronauts to the moon in the 21st century," Vice President Mike Pence declared in March at the National Space Council, which he chairs.

Pence added: "If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission."

Adding pressure to the space program, a congressional report in April warned that China could "achieve future milestones" in areas that it is currently lagging "on shorter timetables than when the United States accomplished similar missions."

The Trump administration unveiled the Artemis program in May, tasked with landing astronauts on the moon by 2024. Despite the program's ambition, its chance of success looks slim. 

On July 10, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine abruptly removed two top officials from their positions in the agency's human exploration office, citing a need for "leadership changes" geared toward a successful moon mission by 2024.

Trump piled on the pressure with a June tweet calling for an expedition that goes well beyond the lunar surface.

"For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the moon - We did that 50 years ago," wrote Trump. "They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars."

Michael Collins, an Apollo 11 crew member, echoed those sentiments: "We should shoot directly for Mars" instead of heading back to the moon, he said Thursday.

But a manned moon landing comes with a hefty price tag. Proponents struggle to justify spending tax dollars on such a mission, even when they use China as a foil. The U.S. spent the equivalent of 1% of the gross domestic product on the Apollo mission, but such an era will not return, one senior administration official admitted.

NASA estimates a moon mission will cost between $20 billion and $30 billion over the next five years. The White House has put in a request for an additional $1.6 billion for the next fiscal year starting October, but there is little chance of getting even that.

Between the mounting costs of health care and debt servicing, the U.S. is hard pressed to spare funds for the space program, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, told Nikkei.

Japan could find itself caught in the crossfire of the new moon race. Tokyo plans to participate in NASA's moon-orbiting Gateway space station, scheduled to lift off as early as 2022. But the Office of Management and Budget at the White House is pursuing a moon landing that bypasses the Gateway as a way to cut costs, said a NASA insider.

In the past, Japanese-made equipment for the International Space Station went to waste because of a reversal of Washington's agenda. "Japan will find it hard to move without closely watching trends in the U.S.," said an official high up in Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

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