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NASA administrator weighs in on China’s historic lunar far side samples — and potential US access

By Kristin Fisher, CNN

(CNN) — The government of China now possesses something that no other humans have ever encountered — rocks and soil from the far side of the moon.

The successful return of the Chang’e-6 lunar mission with the historic cache on June 25 was a scientific coup that further solidified China’s place as one of the world’s top space powers, rivaled only by the United States.

And despite competition heating up in the global race to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, China’s space agency is again following the precedent set by NASA decades ago after the Apollo missions  and sharing its lunar samples with scientists around the world.

“China welcomes scientists from all countries to apply (to study the samples) and share in the benefits,” said Liu Yunfeng, director of the international cooperation office of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), during a Thursday news conference in Beijing.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told CNN he’s “pleased to hear CNSA intends to share” the materials collected by the Chang’e-6 lunar probe last month. The samples, gathered using a drill and a mechanical arm, include up to 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of lunar dust and rocks from an ancient crater on the moon’s far side, which is never visible to Earth.

“Make it available to the international community just as we will when we start bringing additional samples back, and as we did a half a century ago with the samples brought back from the six Apollo moon landings,” Nelson said.

It’s a rare moment of consensus for two space agencies competing to land astronauts on the moon and build a base near the lunar south pole. But US access to the samples  may be stymied by a 2011 law known as the Wolf Amendment, which prohibits the use of government funds by NASA for bilateral cooperation with China or its agencies without authorization from Congress or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, effectively banning the space agency from routinely working with its Chinese counterpart.

“The root cause of obstacles to China-US space cooperation lies in US domestic laws, such as the Wolf Amendment, which hinder cooperation between the two countries in space exploration,” said Bian Zhigang, vice chair of the China National Space Administration, during the Thursday news conference. “If the US truly wishes to engage in normal space exchanges with China, I think they should take concrete measures to remove these obstacles.”

US access to Chang’e-6 samples

During the Cold War, NASA shared samples collected by Apollo astronauts from the moon’s near side with its rival in the first space race — the former Soviet Union — along with dozens of other countries, including China, according to a NASA spokeswoman. But samples from the moon’s far side have taken decades longer to procure. 

China is the only country ever to make a soft landing of a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon, a feat that was first accomplished in 2019 by the country’s Chang’e-4 mission. A year later, China became only the third nation in history to successfully return samples from the side of the moon that faces Earth with the successful completion of the Chang’e-5 mission.

China opened those samples to international scientists for the first time last August, and Nelson has given NASA-funded researchers the green light to apply for access.

“We are going through the process right now with our scientists and our lawyers to make sure that the instructions and guardrails that the Chinese are insisting on … are not a violation of the law, the Wolf Amendment,” Nelson told CNN. “As of this moment, I don’t see a violation.”

Any similar application to study the Chang’e-6 samples must pass the same vetting process, Nelson said. The US space agency “will continue to determine whether NASA-funded scientists and organizations can access the samples in accordance with Congressional restrictions on NASA interactions with CNSA.”

Race to the moon

China is now aiming to land astronauts on the moon “before 2030,” while the US is shooting for “the latter part of 2026,” according to Nelson. Despite the recent success of China’s robotic lunar missions, Nelson remains confident that the US is on track with NASA’s Artemis program to beat Beijing in this second space race to land people on the moon.

“Spaceflight is hard, but human spaceflight is especially hard,” Nelson said. “And magnitudes more difficult than a robotic landing.”

NASA currently has the edge in testing spacecraft capable of carrying humans to the moon. The uncrewed Artemis I mission successfully sent the Orion spacecraft around the moon in 2022, paving the way for the Artemis II mission to send four astronauts on the same trajectory as soon as September 2025. China has yet to fly a human-rated spacecraft around the moon.

NASA has partnered with SpaceX to develop the lunar lander that will take astronauts from the Orion spacecraft to the surface of the moon during the Artemis III mission. That vehicle, dubbed Starship, successfully completed its fourth test flight in June but remains multiple test flights and technology demonstrations away from being capable of carrying people.

China holds the advantage when it comes to the robotic exploration of the moon.  The
US government has not landed a robotic spacecraft on the moon since 1968, but NASA is currently funding the development of lunar landers by private companies through its Commercial Lunar Payload Services, or CLPS program.

Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 lander, also called Odysseus or “Odie,” became the first US-made spacecraft in more than five decades to soft land on the moon when it reached the lunar surface in February. But a different NASA-funded lunar lander named Peregrine, built by Astrobotic Technologies, failed just hours after lifting off on its maiden voyage in January due to a fuel leak.

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