According to the aerospace newspaper Space News, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, gave a talk at a Space Transportation luncheon. He suggested that not only are the international space station partners are interested in joining the return to the moon program, but also a number of emerging space countries. He cautioned that the United States needs to develop a plan for going back to the moon and to stick to it, or else those countries will partner with China instead.

The race for space leadership of the world

Gerstenmaier is suggesting that a space race may be developing between the United States and China with not only the moon as a prize but the leadership of the World Community’s space exploration efforts. The 21st Century version of the space race could be seen as a front for the competition for which country will be the dominant superpower going forward. Access to lunar resources and influence over how they are used and allocated will be a crucial factor in that struggle.

Which countries are potential space partners?

Apparently, the International Space Station partners, Canada, the European Union, Japan, and perhaps Russia are prime candidates to be partners for a return to the moon.

These countries already have a good working relationship with the United States and have expertise and resources that will be of great use. Russia is the one country that is most likely to switch to China because of Vladimir Putin’s antipathy to the United States and his imperial ambitions.

Of the rest, Gerstenmaier mentioned Luxembourg because of that country’s interest in developing a space mining industry and the United Arab Emirates because of the establishment of its own astronaut corps.

Other possible international partners include Israel, South Korea, and India.

Landers and the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway

Two initial projects that international partners will be of use in are Lunar Landers and the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway. The strategy seems to be to partner with a number of commercial companies and international partners to develop and send to the lunar surface a number of landers of increasing size and complexity, leading to astronaut boots on the lunar surface in the late 2020s.

The Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway is the latest version of a cis-lunar space station that will be a way station for not only lunar surface operations but deep space missions to Mars and other destinations.

The SpaceX BFR wild card

Meanwhile, whether Gerstenmaier and other planners at NASA are aware of it or not, SpaceX is making plans that could shake up the return to the moon scenario. Elon Musk’s company is slated to start testing the BFR, sometimes referred to the Big Falcon Rocket, next year at its Texas spaceport. It is entirely possible that the BFR could be ready to take people back to the moon years before NASA and its partners will be prepared. What happens then is open to speculation.