NASA’s Space Launch System (left) is its new moon rocket. China’s Yutu 2 rover (middle) explores the far side of the moon. Russia’s Luna-25 lander just crashed (right).
NASA/Steve Seipel; China National Space Administration; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University; Insider
China, the US, and Russia are all aiming for the moon as they develop new space missions.
Russia was a major contender in the first space race, but now it can’t even land a robot on the moon.
Photos show how Russia is falling behind other space powers with its recent moon crash and old technology.
A new space race is on. China, Russia, and the US (with its international allies) are all plotting huge new moonshots.
The US and its allies have a lunar roadmap, while Russia and China are teaming up on their own plan. But both partnerships aim to build permanent, astronaut-staffed bases on the lunar surface and mine the moon’s resources to help rocket people to Mars.
An artist’s illustration depicts Artemis astronauts on the moon.
NASA via AP
In the first space race, the Soviet Union sent the first satellite and the first humans into Earth’s orbit, nailed the first-ever soft landing on the moon, and completed a total of seven successful lunar landings.
But the new Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, hasn’t been to the moon at all. In fact, it just failed its first attempt at a lunar landing since 1976.
The south pole region on the far side of the moon, captured by Russia’s Luna-25 spacecraft before its failed attempt to land.
Centre for Operation of Space Ground-Based Infrastructure-Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP
Even before that failure, public statements from NASA’s chief indicated that he saw China, not Russia, as a competitor for lunar territory.
“We better watch out that they don’t get to a place on the moon under the guise of scientific research. And it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they say, ‘Keep out, we’re here, this is our territory,'” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, previously told Politico.
Indeed, in recent years China has successfully landed robotic moon missions, as well as completed its own small space station in Earth’s orbit and flown astronauts to and from it. The nation seems to be making steady progress toward its space goals, which include sending humans to the moon and Mars, as The New York Times has reported.
China’s Yutu-2 rover, part of its Chang’e 4 lunar mission, rolls across the far side of the moon.
China National Space Administration
Russia, meanwhile, is floundering. Photos of the space efforts of the US, China, and Russia reveal how far behind the former space power has fallen.
NASA photographed the Russian moon lander’s likely crash site
The uncrewed Luna-25 lander was supposed to touch down in the moon’s south pole region.
The Soyuz-2.1b rocket with the moon lander Luna-25 takes off from a launchpad at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
Roscosmos State Space Corporation via AP
That would have made Russia the first country to reach the area, which is rich in water-ice and therefore a key strategic position in the race for lunar territory. Such a momentous first would have asserted Russia as a considerable competitor in the great return to the moon.
But instead, on August 20, the spacecraft mis-fired its engines, pushed itself onto an unplanned path, and “ceased to exist as a result of a collision with the lunar surface,” according to a Google translation of the mission webpage.
Three days later, India stuck the landing with its own robot and claimed first nation to the moon’s south-pole region.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted what may be the gravesite of Luna-25. Its photos, below, reveal a new crater that probably came from the Russian lander crashing into the moon.
LRO views from before and after the appearance of a new impact crater likely from Russia’s Luna 25 mission.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University
NASA and China have both flown successful moon missions recently
The kickoff stages of NASA’s new moon program, called Artemis, are in full swing. The agency built fresh hardware — a new rocket called the Space Launch System and its new Orion spaceship — and flew it around the moon for the first time last year.
Orion, the moon, and Earth as the spaceship reaches its furthest point from our planet.
NASA is on track to add humans on the next flight. Then, on a third flight, NASA plans to offload the astronauts onto a SpaceX Starship, which should lower them to the surface of the moon for the first human landing there since 1972.
China’s space agency, the China National Space Administration, isn’t flying human-rated spacecraft around the moon yet. But it currently has a rover on the far side of the moon, and one of its moon missions brought lunar samples to Earth in 2020.
Moon samples from China’s lunar exploration program Chang’e-5 Mission are displayed during an exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing, China.
Further, NASA and China both landed rovers on Mars in 2021. Russia is far behind after its moon crash.
The back of China’s Zhurong rover, photographed at its landing spot on Mars’ Utopia Planitia.
China National Space Administration
“The consequences of the Luna-25 catastrophe are enormous,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, told the AP.
“It raises doubts about Russia’s claims of a great power status in the eyes of the global community. Many would decide that Russia can’t fulfill its ambitions either in Ukraine or on the moon because it lives not by its modest current capability but rather fantasies about its great past,” he said.
The US and China are innovating, while Russia’s space tech ages
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After the Luna-25 failure, Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov acknowledged that the new space race is not like the old one.
“We have to essentially master all the technologies all over again — of course, at a new technical level,” Borisov told Russian state media, according to CNN.
So far, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Russia’s launch systems date back to the 1960s and have started to show their age with leaks and other issues in recent years.
The service structure is raised into position around a Russian Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
With all this in mind, Ars Technica’s space editor, Eric Berger, dubbed the Luna-25 failure a “death knell” for President Vladimir Putin’s civil space program. Berger cited other underlying issues that are stifling Russia’s space ambitions, like budget cuts, quality control, and corruption.
Meanwhile, China has built its own space station, developed spaceships to take astronauts there, and nursed a thriving landscape of space startup companies, one of which recently launched the world’s first methane-fueled rocket to orbit.
Students watch a televised lecture by three astronauts on the Tiangong space station.
Xue Lei/Future Publishing via Getty Images
In the US, NASA is working with an array of private companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, to upgrade everything from rockets and spaceships to moon landers and space stations.
More and more, Russia is on its own
The European Space Agency was originally a collaborator on the Luna-25 mission, providing a camera for landing operations. But ESA backed out after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, asking Roscosmos to remove the camera from the spacecraft and saying it would not participate in the ensuing missions, Luna-26 and Luna-27.
Western sanctions have harmed Russia’s space program in other ways, limiting its access to high-quality microchips, the AP reported.
So far, Russia’s attempt to prove its 21st-century deep-space prowess has fallen short.
As Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes peaceful space exploration, told CNN: “Russia’s Cold War legacy will be just that — a legacy — unless they can actually do this themselves.”