ON JULY 11th, climbing through the darkling sky like a bolt of lightning in reverse, Richard Branson stole a whisper of Jeff Bezos’s thunder.

Listen to this story

Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS or Android.

In early June Mr Bezos had garnered headlines and pageviews by announcing that when his rocket company, Blue Origin, launched a space capsule with humans on board for the first time on July 20th he would be among those passengers. Virgin Galactic, a company founded by Sir Richard, had already flown its rocket-plane Unity to the edge of space. Plans were quickly hatched to bring its next test flight forward and to put Sir Richard himself on the crew manifest (he had been planning to take a later flight). On July 11th Unity did its thing, and Sir Richard, returned to Earth, proclaimed a new space age open. Blue Origin tweeted, snarkily if accurately, that its capsule goes higher and has bigger windows.

If Mr Bezos has lost his precedence, he has kept his date. And that matters. July 20th is the anniversary of the first landing of a crewed spacecraft on the Moon: that of the Eagle, Apollo 11’s lunar module, in 1969. As such it was, for a long time, a date for retrospection. But now it is also a date for looking forward.

There is every reason to think that, by the time Apollo 11’s 60th anniversary rolls around at the end of this decade, American astronauts will once again be leaving footprints on the barren lunar plains. And while Sir Richard has no realistic human-spaceflight ambitions beyond tourist flights to the top of the atmosphere, Mr Bezos wants Blue Origin to play a big role in that next great adventure.

A place for the private initiative of Mr Bezos and those like him is one of the ways in which the plans and context for America’s return to the Moon differ from those that saw it first go there—and then stop going there—half a century ago. There are many others. One of the goals of the Artemis programme, as NASA’s back-to-the-Moon programme is known, is to highlight the ways in which America has changed in the intervening decades. Another is to be comparatively cheap. Whereas Apollo had to be a uniquely American achievement, Artemis will encourage the participation of allies. And rather than providing just a few brief visits, Artemis is meant to lead to the creation of permanent outposts.

One thing remains the same. Artemis, like Apollo, is shaped by the geopolitics of great-power rivalry—then between America and the Soviet Union, now between America and China. Even here, though, there are crucial differences. In the 1960s America was in a race, the outcome of which could not be known. Today it is the reigning champion, seeking merely to maintain its pre-eminence. But the question in the minds of the spectators is strikingly similar. Does the American system work better than the alternative when faced with the challenges of the future?

In the 1960s America started off on the back foot. The Soviet Union had launched the first satellite into space in 1957 and the first human in 1961. If the space race was to get into orbit, and thereby demonstrate both your remarkable technological prowess and your ability to drop a nuclear weapon onto any point on the Earth, the Soviet Union had already won. Part of the genius of Apollo was to redefine the race as being one to the Moon.

The fact that getting to the Moon requires a very large launcher meant that the more limited technology which had allowed the Soviet Union to take the lead in Earth orbit no longer counted for much. Both sides needed a fundamentally new capability. It was America which, through a remarkable and extremely costly effort, successfully built that capability in the form of the Saturn V.

When, at the beginning of that great drama, President John F. Kennedy told Congress that America’s eagerness to go into space was “not governed by the efforts of others” he was being less than candid; the Soviet Union’s efforts were fundamental to the programme’s rationale. One of the differences between that era of lunar rivalry and this one, though, is that China seems to be living up to Kennedy’s ideal. It is not trying to leapfrog ahead of America as America tried to overtake the Soviet Union. It is trying to build a similar set of capabilities—and thus catch up to some extent—and to meet its own national needs, whether defined in military and economic terms or, more nebulously, in terms of prestige.

China is capable of routinely launching satellites of all sizes which it uses for its own communications, reconnaissance and intelligence services and also makes available to third countries. Last year it completed a satellite navigation system, Beidou, that is a global rival to the GPS system which America originally fielded in the 1980s, and to the more recent Glonass and Galileo systems developed by Russia and Europe, respectively.

The rover that China landed on Mars in May was much smaller and less capable than the most recent rovers America has sent there. But no other country has yet managed such a feat at all. Nor has anyone else landed a rover—called Yutu-2, after the rabbit who lives on the Moon in Chinese folklore—on the far side of the Moon. The modular space station that China is currently assembling in low Earth orbit is much more modest than the International Space Station (ISS) on which America, Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia have collaborated. But it is a more ambitious undertaking than any of those powers other than America or Russia could field alone. Xi Jinping, China’s president, certainly seemed proud when he had a videocall with the “taikonauts” on board.

My spaceship knows which way to go

And China has started developing big boosters, rockets similar in size to the Saturn V. Officials in the Chinese space programme have said that when there is a working version, probably in the early 2030s, it will be used to put people on the Moon; recently the Chinese and Russian space agencies announced that they would work together towards such a goal. Again, this is a matter of catching up. The difference is that this time China is recreating a capability which America has let lapse.

Recreating a capability is not the same as running in a race, much less winning one. But for China it is just one stage in a longer drawn-out strategy which would see it eclipse America as the leading power in space sometime in the 2040s through a mixture of its own perseverance and America’s decline. China would be headed for the Moon even if America was not; it will go there even if, as seems likely, America gets back there well beforehand. China’s leaders seem to see a presence on the Moon as having a meaning which goes well beyond beating an adversary to a largely arbitrary finish line. There are things that great nations do which small nations cannot; there are types of grandeur reserved for nations which embody ancient civilisations of global import. China’s leaders think their country must be seen to share in all such perquisites. A presence beyond the Earth is one of them.

A truly confident America might look at these ambitions in the context of its own achievements half a century ago, say “been there, done that” and move on. Today’s America lacks such composure. For China to land on the Moon in the absence of an active American presence there would be a public-opinion disaster.

When making the case for the Artemis programme in May, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, brandished a picture of China’s Mars rover at the House appropriations committee. “They’re going to be landing humans on the Moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our Human Landing System programme going vigorously.”

Beating China is a simple and popular proposition. The Artemis programme as drawn up under Mr Trump has been embraced by Mr Biden’s administration and seems to enjoy solid bipartisan backing in Congress. It is an approach to making America great again which is hard to oppose in principle, even if it is not everyone’s priority.

The new administration has yet to face up publicly to the fact that it will not meet the original goal of boots on the Moon by the end of 2024 (which would have been the end of Mr Trump’s second term). But it seems highly likely that it will manage it sometime before the end of Mr Biden’s second term, should he serve one. As long as the programme remains on course to succeed before China gets off the pad, a little delay is unlikely to badly affect support.

Artemis also serves other political goals. The Americans put on the Moon by Apollo were all white men. This did not go unnoticed at the time; one of the most enduring works by Gil Scott-Heron, a black poet and musician, begins “A rat done bit my sister Nell (with Whitey on the Moon)”. Much has recently been done to publicise the contribution that women and people of colour made to the programme behind the scenes—this year NASA’s Washington, DC headquarters building was renamed in honour of Mary W. Jackson, the agency’s first black female engineer. Their role in today’s space programme is routinely celebrated. Wally Funk, a campaigning aviator who met all the criteria for being an astronaut in the 1960s save for her sex, will be a spacefaring guest of Mr Bezos’s on July 20th. Artemis, named after Apollo’s sister, is to be the means by which women and non-whites first reach the Moon.

Giant steps are what you take

What is more, it has the advantage of being comparatively cheap. For Apollo NASA had to create not just the Saturn V but also the command and lunar modules which it hurled aloft; the total cost is put at around $300bn in today’s dollars. Then, though, the size and expense of the task were not an insuperable obstacle; indeed, they were part of the point. The project was a signal of just how much America was willing to stake on technological pre-eminence.

Having to expend similar amounts to recreate an old capability would not send a similar message. Fortunately, it is not necessary. A new NASA rocket with Saturn V-like capabilities, the Space Launch System (SLS), is already close to completing its development, as is a new long-duration crew capsule, Orion, that can ride on top of it. NASA also had pre-existing plans for a small space station, now known as Lunar Gateway, which would orbit in the Moon’s vicinity. At its simplest, all Artemis requires beyond what is already in development is a system for getting people in an Orion orbiting in the vicinity of the Moon down to the surface and back up again (see diagram).

For NASA to develop such a landing system itself would still be a pricey undertaking. But the space agency’s greatest achievement over the past decade has been demonstrating that it does not have to develop its spacecraft itself. After the last space shuttles were retired, NASA asked private companies to submit proposals for new spacecraft to get first cargo and then crews up to the ISS. Various companies won contracts under these schemes, most notably SpaceX, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk.

Grants, milestone payments made when particular goals were achieved and the promise of long-term contracts once the vehicles were up to scratch allowed SpaceX to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft, now used to ferry astronauts up to the ISS. The overall cost to NASA of developing the Crew Dragon this way was $3.1bn: that is only a little more than the total cost of the most recent Mars rover mission.

It’s lonely out in space

During the Trump administration NASA decided that Artemis should take the same approach to developing its Human Landing System (HLS). Three proposals survived the first round of bidding last year: one from a “national team” led by Blue Origin, one from a consortium led by Dynetics, an American aerospace and computing contractor, and one from SpaceX. It was expected that two of the three would receive contracts to build systems, just as Boeing and SpaceX had both received contracts to develop capsules to take crew to the space station (Boeing has yet to fly a crew in its capsule, but will undertake a crewless test flight later this month).

On April 16th, though, NASA awarded a single contract worth $2.9bn to SpaceX, saying it lacked the money to offer two. Both Blue Origin and Dynetics challenged the award, which is now being reviewed by the Government Accountability Office; its findings are expected on or before August 4th. Maria Cantwell, a senator from Blue Origin’s home state of Washington, subsequently sponsored an amendment to the bill authorising NASA’s budget which requires the agency to issue a second HLS contract. The bill has passed the Senate, but as yet has no counterpart in the House.

This will probably lead to delays. But the competitive approach is the right one. When NASA builds its own spacecraft prices go sky high, not least because politicians like to see federal money spent in their home states. The SLS is a case in point. Its development costs, now sunk, have been enormous; it is far too expensive for frequent flights. A private company could have done the job much better—as SpaceX is showing with the development of its Starship launch system, similar in capacity to the SLS but much more technically ambitious. Its “Raptor” engines are of an advanced design that no one has previously managed to make practical. It is intended to be entirely reusable.

Prototypes of the sleek, stainless-steel-hulled Starship have been launching, landing and sometimes exploding at SpaceX’s plant in Texas for months as the company tests their new engines and their ability to change their orientation in mid-air. The next test flight will be the most ambitious yet. It will see the first use of a “Super Heavy” booster to launch a Starship almost into orbit (it will in fact come down about 6,000km away in the ocean off Hawaii). The 33 Raptors on the Super Heavy will generate twice as much thrust as the first stage of a Saturn V did. The eventual goal is for the Super Heavies, like the first stages of SpaceX’s Falcon boosters, to return and make a vertical landing after sending their Starships into orbit. There the Starships will either launch satellites and return to Earth or wait for a subsequent launch to refuel them before heading off to more distant destinations.

The SpaceX HLS Moon lander is a version of such a Starship, and NASA’s selection of it over its competitors is a vote of confidence in the company’s scheme. If it comes to fruition, it will outcompete the SLS by more or less every measure save the employment of government contractors.

Blue Origin’s plans for a booster far larger than the petard with which Mr Bezos will hoist himself next week are not yet as far along. But Mr Bezos has money and determination, as well as friends in Washington. America could have three boosters capable of supporting human missions to the Moon, two private and one public, before China has even one.

It is in such possibilities that the real promise of Artemis lies. The Chinese Moon programme is entirely a creature of government. Although there is a nascent private space sector in the country, it is not yet capable of anything so ambitious. (Nor is it entirely clear that the government is; the engines a booster big enough for Moon duty requires are far more sophisticated than anything it has yet built.) In this, China’s programme will resemble in form, if not in scale, America’s huge, centralised Apollo programme. One of the great ironies of the first space race was that at the peak of its efforts to stop the Moon from turning communist America was devoting more than 4% of government spending to a 400,000-worker planned economy entirely run by government officials.

The stars look very different today

This time round, it is possible that America will instead get to the Moon by supporting the aspirations of brilliant and determined—if sometimes petty—entrepreneurs and harnessing the capabilities they provide. It promises to be a more effective mode of exploration. It could also be the beginning of something more. While Mr Musk dreams of his Starships taking settlers to Mars, Mr Bezos talks of using resources from the Moon to build new industries in space (such as power-generation, asteroid mining or the production of exotic new materials). It is a vision shared by Chinese space enthusiasts such as Lieutenant-General Zhang Yulin, who works in a part of the People’s Liberation Army devoted to space- and cyber-operations. Its realisation, should it come to pass, may offer a truly dramatic answer to the question of which system can better respond to the challenges of the future.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The eagle and the rabbit”