Robert Bigelow, hotel magnate and aerospace entrepreneur, has a dire warning for the world: Not only is China now the dominant manufacturing entity on the planet, it might soon say the same thing off Earth as well. In fact, the Asian nation could very well own the moon before 2030. With plans to establish a manned lunar facility in a few years, China has plans to be the first nation to establish a base of operations on the moon. Bigelow believes that it will be just the first step in a lunar land grab by the Chinese, one complete with territorial dominance and mineral rights.
In what Bigelow refers to as "Solar System Monopoly," it appears as if China will be the first to "Pass Go, Collect $200" and begin to acquire real estate off-planet. With plenty of money, a national direction, and the personnel and technology to do it, it has been reported that China could have a moon base up and functioning in the mid-2020s. But according to Discovery News, that date has been pushed up to 2020. With the newly discovered mineral richness of Earth's nearest neighbor, China could set up mining operations, establishing de facto monopolies over titanium and Helium-3, both rare on Earth but found with regularity on the moon.
"This will characterize the 21st and 22nd centuries and beyond. If we ignore this, it will be at our extreme peril," Bigelow said at this week's International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M.
Bigelow, who founded Bigelow Aerospace and has developed inflatable space modules (in an enterprise designed for a "hotel in space" experience that he hopes to have operational by 2016), believes that the U. S. needs to rekindle its commitment to space exploration and the fear of a Chinese presence on the moon might just do that. He says that putting a mining operation on the moon would be the single most important benefit to China that could be accomplished in the next 15 years.
"Hopefully this will produce the fear factor necessary to motivate Americans," he said.
Even without the fear, the U. S. is ill-suited to do anything in the way of competition for the Chinese. With the retirement of the shuttle program in July, NASA manned missions are in suspension for an indeterminate time. Astronaut missions at the International Space Station (ISS) will be accomplished with the help of the Russians, who will ferry Americans to the ISS for the next decade or so.
So who will contest the Chinese? Apparently, no country is in the economic position to compete with China for the moon.
Some wave off Bigelow's assertions, noting that China cannot claim territory on the moon, nor can it claim usage. It is a signatory of the U.N. treaty that forbids member nations from claiming, using, or developing the moon for solely nationalistic purposes. But Bigelow, who has been arguing his position for years, told Forbes in an interview in June that there is a loophole in the treaty in Article 16, where it gives signatories the option to withdraw from the treaties member group.
In short, China could build a lunar base and begin mining, claiming both territory and mineral rights for its own. From a central position, it could then manufacture outposts, other mining operations, extending its territory. Japan has plans to build a lunar base as well, but not until 2030. By then, they might need permission to land -- or be relegated to areas of the moon less optimal for establishing a base, less mineral rich, perhaps even dependent upon the Chinese for a water supply (water was discovered on the moon by a NASA probe in 2010, thereby fostering ideas of self-sustaining long-term lunar facilities).
Given America's general lack of enthusiasm for a moon base in the past, Bigelow sees getting the U. S. into the "monopoly" game will most likely come with government partnering with private space exploration companies such as his own and Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Corp., one of several firms working to develop commercial passenger spaceships for NASA and other potential users, told Discovery News that the Chinese were serious about getting to the moon. "Not only do they have a lot of people and a lot of money focused in on it, but they have a lot of willpower. I think that's one of the things that we in this country are lacking a little bit right now, the willpower to do the necessary things to make us successful in space."
In the last two years, the Obama administration has killed both the Constellation program (designed as America's next man-on-the-moon project) and placed a spending freeze on NASA's budget, suspending it at roughly the same as the 2010 fiscal budget for the following five years.
(photo credit: NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings, Wikimedia Commons)