NASA administrator weighs in on China’s historic lunar far side samples

China has made history by becoming the first country to retrieve samples from the far side of the moon, with the Chang’e-6 lunar mission successfully returning on June 25. This achievement solidifies China’s position as one of the world’s leading space powers, rivaling only the United States. China plans to share these valuable lunar samples with international scientists, following the precedent set by NASA after the Apollo missions.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed his pleasure at China’s intention to share the samples. However, US access to these samples may be restricted due to the 2011 Wolf Amendment, a law that prohibits NASA from cooperating with China without Congressional authorization. Bian Zhigang, vice chair of the China National Space Administration, has urged the US to remove these obstacles for normal space cooperation.

During the Cold War, NASA shared samples from the moon’s near side with its rivals, including the former Soviet Union and China. However, samples from the moon’s far side have taken decades to procure. China, being the only country to make a soft landing of a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon, achieved this feat in 2019 with the Chang’e-4 mission.

China opened its lunar samples to international scientists for the first time last August, and Nelson has given NASA-funded researchers the green light to apply for access. The US space agency will determine whether NASA-funded scientists can access the samples in accordance with the Wolf Amendment.

China aims to land astronauts on the moon before 2030, while the US is targeting the latter part of 2026. Despite China’s recent success with robotic lunar missions, NASA remains confident that it will beat China in the race to land people on the moon due to its advanced human spaceflight capabilities. NASA has partnered with SpaceX to develop the lunar lander for the Artemis III mission, while China has yet to fly a human-rated spacecraft around the moon.

In terms of robotic exploration, China holds the advantage, as the US has not landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon since 1968. NASA is currently funding the development of lunar landers by private companies through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. The first US-made spacecraft to soft land on the moon in over five decades, Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lander, reached the lunar surface in February, but a different NASA-funded lunar lander, Peregrine, failed on its maiden voyage due to a fuel leak in January.

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