Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, signed an agreement this week with the Chinese National Space Administration on the joint creation of what they call the International Scientific Lunar Station.
The memorandum of understanding between the two governments is the latest sign that Russia sees its future in space as primarily a cooperative effort with the Chinese space program rather than with NASA, its main partner of the last 25 years.
NASA had invited Russia to join a U.S.-led lunar project known as Artemis.
The project with China will be “guided by the principles of equal distribution of rights and responsibilities” and will “promote cooperation … with open access to all interested nations and international partners,” the Russian space agency said in a statement published after the memorandum was signed on Tuesday.
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The Roscosmos statement said the goal of the lunar station with China will be to strengthen scientific cooperation and promote “the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all mankind.”
This wording echoes Russian critiques of the NASA-led Artemis project, which also proposes the construction of a space station orbiting the Moon as the foundation of a broader international effort to explore the lunar surface.
Last year, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin slammed the NASA effort as a kind of NATO-in-space political project.
“With the lunar project,” Rogozin told the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda in July, "we are observing the departure of our American partners from the principles of cooperation and mutual support that developed during cooperation on the ISS. They see their program not as international, but similar to NATO,” he added. “We are not interested in participating in such a project.”
NASA and Roscosmos were the two main partners responsible for building and operating the International Space Station, or ISS, a project launched 20 years ago that has served as the ultimate expression of post-Cold War reconciliation between Russia and the United States.
But that relationship appears to be slowly eroding as broader U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate.
Moscow has never landed cosmonauts on the Moon, and in recent years its space program has faltered, struggling with corruption and quality control issues, while the U.S. commercial space industry and the Chinese space program have pushed forward, threatening to far outpace Moscow’s once-storied program.
In China, the state daily Global Times ran a front-page article celebrating the agreement with Russia, explaining to its readers that Washington was trying to position itself to dictate the terms of future international activity on the Moon and beyond, into deep space.
“To participate in shaping the direction of space exploration and have a say in making the rules, China and Russia need to be in the front line of space exploration and promote balance and fairness with strength and real actions,” it said.
Memorandums of understanding represent little more than first steps toward a project, but they are symbolic and indicative of the political tides that all space programs — be it Russia's, China's or the United States' — ride on.
In the nearer term, Russia and China say they will coordinate various robotic missions to explore the moon.
NASA is barred by the U.S. government from cooperating with the Chinese space agency. China’s space program, operating in relative isolation, has made major strides in the past decade. Unable to join the International Space Station, Beijing has been focusing on creating its own national space stations.
Details of what its proposed lunar station with Russia will look like are, for now, unclear.
The Roscosmos statement said that it will be “a complex of experimental research facilities created on the surface and/or in orbit of the moon” to facilitate a large variety of research and exploration efforts, both with and without crews.
In other words, the international lunar station sounds a lot like a Russia-Chinese answer to the NASA-led Artemis project.
Projects like these take years to get off the ground, however, and the Russia-China memorandum represents the first in a long list of required steps. And though Russia has yet to officially accept NASA’s invitation to join the Artemis project, it has also not yet officially rejected it.
“I think this is kind of a diplomatic bargaining game,” Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian space policy analyst, told NBC News. “Russia has nothing to offer China in a Chinese-led Moon program, and Russia certainly needs to continue space cooperation with the United States and Europe (as well as with Japan and Canada) beyond the conclusion of the ISS program.”
Luzin says that it remains unclear whether Rogozin’s harsh rhetoric concerning the Artemis project represents official Russian policy.
“Rogozin has said that we are not going to join Artemis, but it seems that this is most likely just his personal opinion rather than Russia’s official and final decision,” Luzin says.