to two power poles in outer space?

LA first mission of the US program Artemis is planned by the end of 2022 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the goal of returning to the Moon and ultimately maintaining a continuous human presence there. The realization of this program cements both a new phase in the manned exploration of outer space, but also the establishment of two poles for international cooperation in this highly strategic environment.

Map. Manned exploration of the Moon: towards two poles of power in outer space?
Click on the thumbnail to enlarge this unpublished map co-published on and AB Pictoris, designed and produced by Blanche Lambert.

The advent of this new “space age” is materializing with a real renewed interest in lunar and interplanetary exploration in general. This phenomenon was first made possible by the expansion of the once very closed circle of space powers. While in the early 1960s only the United States and the USSR had launch vehicles – and thus the capacity to place objects in orbit – to date, 10 states have autonomous launch vehicles: the United States of America, Russia, Europe [1] – via the Kourou launch base in French Guiana -, Japan, China, South Korea, India, Israel, Iran and North Korea.

This has notably multiplied unmanned exploration missions to the Moon: Europe, Japan, India, Israel and South Korea join the US and Russia as players capable of launching missions to the Moon. However, it is important to note that the launch of the Israeli mission was a success, but that its landing on the moon did not work. The South Korean mission has only just been launched on August 5, 2022, so we cannot yet assess its success.

This new “space age” has also been made possible by the arrival of new room, which multiplies the number and changes the nature of the actors in the spatial domain. The actors, hitherto state and state – they OldSpace – gradually integrate players from the private sphere, as evidenced in particular by the recovery of US manned flight capabilities with the launch vehicle Falcon 9 reusable first stage and capsule Crew Dragon built by private company SpaceX. These new players intend to reinvigorate interplanetary exploration with the goal of returning man to the Moon and even sending him to Mars by 2035.

In terms of manned exploration, countries that want to send men into space must continue to cooperate because only three space powers have manned flight capabilities. The first competitors in the space race during the Cold War (1947-1990), the United States, from the Kennedy Space Center and Russia, from the Baikonur base leased in Kazakhstan since 1991, retain this strategic autonomy. China joined this inner circle in 2003 with its Jiuquan base.

The rapid development of its space program should also be emphasized. In less than twenty years, Beijing has gone from putting its first taikonaut into orbit to building its own space station and intending to set foot on the Moon. Discarded from the projectISS of the United States, especially because of the regulations ITAR bolstered by a suspected theft of technology in 1999, China developed its own manned space station program, Tiangong 3. Moreover, Moscow expressed a similar desire at the beginning of August 2022 with the announcement of the new director of Roscosmos, Y. Borissov, about the withdrawal of Russia from the International Space Station after 2024. The first modules of the Russian project, ROSS, should be put into orbit between 2025 and 2030. This announcement underscores the Russian desire to maintain some autonomy in its continuous presence in orbit. In addition to these actors, we must also mention the Indian missions Gaganyanwhich should give India manned flight capabilities from the Satish Dhawan base from 2024. This first manned flight could also ultimately realize New Delhi’s ambitions to send a vyomanaut to the lunar surface.

Fifty years after the launch of the last mission of the famous lunar program Apollo, The US starts with the mission Artemis 1 in a new space race no longer against the USSR, but against a pole of power with growing influence. The latter, consisting of China and Russia, whose cosmonautic capabilities no longer need to be proven and who constantly denounce American hegemony on Earth and in space, have actually preferred to develop their own exploration program. Russia, which was to participate in the agreements anyway Artemis with its ancient know-how in the construction of space stations in orbit, they finally decided in 2020 to favor a new path by cooperating with China, whose lunar ambitions have been clearly shown since its first manned flight in 2003.

This Russian decision comes in a context of growing confrontation with the US in the space sector: the year 2020 also marks the end of NASA’s reliance on Roscosmos to send men to the International Space Station. Indeed, with the arrival of the American private space company SpaceX and its capsule Crew Dragonis the United States regaining its manned flight capabilities nearly a decade after the end of Space Shuttlee. This has crystallized tensions between Moscow and Washington, whose relations continue to deteriorate in many areas. The same phenomenon has been observed between Russia and Europe, with the European Space Agency (ESA) ending its cooperation with Roscosmos following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. However, two agencies were to carry out joint unmanned missions to explore the moon.

Moreover, the Sino-Russian program is also part of this growing spirit of confrontation. In fact, it was revealed in the hours following the announcement of Roscosmos’ rejection of the Artemis deals. In fact, Russia and China perceive these agreements as inherently an attack on the Outer Space Treaty. In fact, these agreements, which serve as a legal basis for interplanetary exploration, contain a clause establishing “safe zones” on the Moon. This is interpreted by Russia and China as a means of privatizing the exploitation of the moon’s resources.which is strictly prohibited under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Thus, two solid lunar programs exist side by side. On the one hand, the program Artemiscarried by the United States and the signatory countries of the agreements of the same name (mostly Western) allow for a base in lunar orbit, Lunar Gateway, but also installations at the Moon’s South Pole. It should be noted here that ESA participates in the program Artemis as a supranational organization because only states can sign agreements of the same name. France has just signed these agreements in June 2022. The European Agency also participates in the program through the construction of the capsule Orion, where astronauts will travel to return to the Moon. On the other hand, the International Scientific Moon Base Project (ILRS), carried by China and Russia, also plans to be realized at the Moon’s South Pole. Implementation of two parallel lunar programs therefore leads into outer space, despite being the “heritage of humanity” whose use must remain “peaceful” according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, power rivalry that we have been witnessing for a few years. Entry into a multipolar world can thus also be observed in an environment that has long been perceived as an opportunity for international cooperation.

Thus, outer space becomes an environment where the logic of economic competitiveness, power projection and thus rivalry between states is implemented. It is in this sense that the launch of the mission Artemis 1 is not unimportant, and that in the future it will be appropriate to nurture the reflection on the phenomena of power which do not cease to be expressed in manned space research, which is therefore making its great comeback thirty years after the end of the Cold War.

Commentary by Blanche Lambert, AB Pictoris. Copyright text and map September 2022-AB

Bonuses : the map in PDF format for printing in high quality

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