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‘We’re in a space race’: NASA chief on China, Canada’s increased role in space, Russia partnership

By Alexandra Mae Jones, writer

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    TORONTO (CTV Network) — As astronauts prepare for the first crewed mission to the moon in 50 years, a space exploration plan that will see Canada taking on an increased role, the question of keeping up with China will be a consideration, according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Nelson sat down with CTV’s Power Play for a broadcast exclusive discussion about the dynamics of space relationships with Russia and China, and the continuing role that Canada will play in the exploration of deep space.

“The short answer is yes, we’re in a space race to get to the Moon with China,” he said Monday.

Despite global tensions with Russia due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, NASA’s relationship with Russia’s cosmonauts is as strong as ever, Nelson said, adding that he sees a lack of transparency from China’s space agency.

Canada is less willing to characterize it as a contest to get to the moon first.

“I don’t know if it’s a race, but it’s certainly a moment for humanity,” Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne, told reporters on Parliament Hill Monday.

“You know, we’re going back to space after 52 years, so that’s a moment.”

Artemis II is the first crewed mission to the moon since 1972, and will include Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen among its crew, the first astronaut outside of the U.S. to travel to the moon.

The mission comes at a time when China’s ambitious space program has embarked on or is planning several lunar missions, landing a lunar rover in 2019 and planning a lunar research station within the decade.

It also comes at a time in which terrestrial tensions are high between Russia — whose space agency has consistently worked with NASA over the decades — and western allies of Ukraine including the U.S. and Canada, due to Russia’s continued invasion.

And yet, the difference in space relations could not be more stark, Nelson said.

“In civilian space, we have co-operated with the Russians ever since 1975,” he said. “In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, and today, we still co-operate with them in a very collaborative and peaceful way.”

He pointed out that Russian cosmonauts operate the International Space Station side by side with NASA astronauts, and that they frequently trust each other with their lives.

“We built the International Space Station with the Russians. What a contrast, with the Chinese government,” Nelson said. “They are secretive, they are non-transparent. They will not share when Earth is threatened by one of their tumbling rockets coming back in, they will not share their trajectories, so it’s a huge difference in the way we approach our civilian space program with the Russians visa vie the Chinese.”

China has faced criticism in the past from NASA for its handling of space debris after the remnants of a rocket plunged into the Indian Ocean in 2021. China’s space agency rebutted that the majority of the rocket burned up in reentry, and has accused the U.S. of inflaming tensions.

Nelson said that despite the war in Ukraine, NASA’s relationship with Russian’s space agency has not changed.

“Fortunately, the professional, steady-as-you-go relationship has not missed a beat. It does take the two of us, Russia and the U.S., to operate the space station,” he said.

“What an irony that is. Look what’s happening in Ukraine, on the face of the earth. And look at the peaceful relationship we have in space.”

NASA is aiming to put astronauts back on the lunar surface by the end of 2025, hoping to explore an area that they didn’t explore the last time boots were on the moon: the south pole.

“We go back to the moon, this time, it’s a different moon. Because we’re going to the South Pole,” Nelson said. “And we go back for a different purpose. It’s not just to go and come back. It’s now to go there to learn, to live, to invent, to create, in order to go on out into the cosmos further.”

The south pole is also where China’s lunar exploration program is aiming to set up a lunar research station within the next 10 years. In a press release Sunday, the China National Space Administration stated that this fourth phase of its lunar program is already underway, and will be starting with Chang’e-6’s planned mission to collect samples from the far side of the moon in 2024. Their lunar research station is expected to be completed around 2028.

The benefits of reaching deeper into space stretch beyond mere exploration or competition, Nelson said.

“Certainly, one aspect is the adventure of it,” he admitted. “We are adventurous explorers. It fulfills part of that desire.”

But he pointed out that when scientists develop new technology for space exploration, they often find at-home applications too.

“Why is our participation in space helpful to us earthlings here on the face of the Earth? Well, in your pocket, you have a cell telephone,” he said. “You have a camera in there. It takes beautiful and very clear pictures. That camera on a chip was developed by NASA in our space program, looking back at Earth, and so the spin-offs from the technology that we develop to go further out into space, are having huge applications here on Earth.”

The upcoming Artemis II mission will be a landmark moment not just for NASA, but for Canada and the Canadian Space Agency, as the first Canadian astronaut will be orbiting the Moon when the mission launches in 2024.

“Half a century ago, we went as the United States,” Nelson said. “This time, we go on an international mission. And we’re very honoured that Canada is our first participant with us, with Jeremy Hansen as the astronaut.”

Champagne watched the Apollo missions to the moon unfold when he was growing up, he told reporters Monday, and it’s inspiring to be part of that this time around.

“This time we’re going to write history,” Champagne said. “Last time, we were watching it. This time, we’re going to write it, and I think it’s a moment for Canada to think: we’re going to be the second nation in the world to go in deep space, to go around the moon. So for me, this was about ambition, this is about possibilities, this is about Canada in the 21st century.”

Nelson pointed out that Canada has been an invaluable collaborator in space exploration for a long time, having developed the famous Canadarm and its successors.

“It was first on the space shuttle, the vehicle that I flew on,” Nelson said. “It is now on the International Space Station, and it will be, and Canada was the first to sign up for, what will be a mini space station in lunar orbit.”

Artemis II is only one stage in NASA’s current plan for furthering space exploration. The agency aims to develop a space station in lunar orbit, to be called the Lunar Gateway, all in the hopes of travelling deeper into space.

“There will be a Canadian on Gateway,” he said.

Nelson underlined the importance of this international collaboration, explaining that if scientists want to reach Mars eventually, they need to be able to learn how to do that. That’s one of the long-term goals of the Lunar Gateway.

“The moon’s only a few days away,” he said. “Mars is months and months.

“Right now, it would be difficult to go all the way to Mars, to keep humans alive for as long as it would take and as long as you would have to stay on the surface of Mars and then come all the way back.”

He added that in terms of spending on space, Canada is already “pulling its own weight” but will likely end up spending more in the coming years as space exploration expands.

“I think that any nation that is co-operating with us is going to spend more in their activities as we venture out toward the moon,” he said. “That’s happened with Europe, it’s happened with Japan, two of the other main partners along with Canada. I think you will see an increased activity and spending in Canada.”

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