US space firms tell Washington: China will take over the moon if you’re not careful

“We come in peace. Take us to your Secretary General.”
“We come in peace. Take us to your Secretary General.”
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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The US space industry is prodding the US government into refreshing its outdated laws on commercial activity beyond earth: scare it with talk of Chinese galactic domination.

At a Senate hearing on the space industry today, companies that build rockets and space habitats and manufacture electronic goods in space spoke about a standard laundry list of complaints, from regulatory burdens to fears of subsidized competitors. But their message was wrapped in patriotic concerns about China’s growing capacity for space action.

These companies are eager for the US government to allow and invest in commercial activities in orbit and around the moon. Many think the laws governing action in space, and particularly the UN Space Treaty, need refreshing for an age when private companies are close to matching the space capacity of sovereign nations. The last major change was a law on asteroid mining passed in 2015.

Robert Bigelow, a real-estate mogul who now operates an eponymous company dedicated to creating space habitats and building facilities on the moon, warned the Senate hearing that without a global legal framework, the US could be left behind.

“China is very pre-disposed to ownership, whether its creating the islands in South China Sea, properties in massive quantities that they’ve purchased in South America or Africa, whether you open a [foreign subsidiary in China] and can only own 49% of it,” he said. “China could exercise an effort to start to lay claim to certain lunar territories. I don’t think it’s a joke, I don’t think it’s something to be cavalier about. Such an ownership consequence would have an amazing impact on the image of China vis-a-vis the United States and the rest of the world, if they should own large amounts of territory on that body, if we stood back and we were not prepared.”

Chris Rush, whose company Made in Space is developing a competitive fiber optic cable alternative manufactured in micro-gravity, told the lawmakers that the US needs to maintain its current advantages in space manufacturing.

The Obama administration had declined to partner with the European Space Agency on a potential “moon village,” but now China is in talks with the ESA about working together on the program. China also plans to land two lunar probes in the next year. The Trump administration has yet to outline the details of its space strategy, but many commercial operators hope to see a focus on lunar activity. So far, the Trump administration hasn’t offered a definitive course, but has delivered bold—not to say unrealistic—talk about speeding up plans for everything from a Moon mission to a trip to Mars.