MOSCOW - Mankind's second race for the moon has taken on a distinctly Cold War feel, with the Russian space agency accusing its old rival NASA of rejecting a proposal for joint lunar exploration.
The charge comes amid suspicion in Moscow that the US is seeking to deny Russia access to an isotope in abundance under the moon's surface that many believe could replace fossil fuels and even end the threat of global warming.
A new era of international co-operation in space supposedly dawned after the US, Russia and other powers declared their intention to send humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.
But while NASA has lobbied for support from Britain and the European Space Agency, Russia says its offers have been rebuffed.
"We are ready to co-operate but for some reason the United States has announced that it will carry out the program itself," Anatoly Perminov, the head of Russia's federal space agency, Roscosmos, said on Monday. "Strange as it is, the United States is short of experts to implement the program."
NASA announced in December that it was planning to build an international base camp on one of the moon's poles, permanently staffing it by 2024. The Russian space rocket manufacturer Energia revealed an even more ambitious program last August, saying it would build a permanent moon base by 2015.
While the Americans have been either coy or dismissive on the subject, Russia openly says the main purpose of its lunar program is the industrial extraction of helium-3.
While critics dismiss it a 21st-century equivalent of the medieval alchemist's fruitless quest to turn lead into gold, some scientists say helium-3 could be the answer to the world's energy woes.
As helium-3 is non-polluting and effective in tiny quantities, many countries are taking it very seriously. Germany, India and China, which will launch a lunar probe to research extraction techniques in September, are all studying ways to mine the isotope.
"Whoever conquers the moon first will be the first to benefit," said Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China's lunar program.
Energia says it will start "industrial scale delivery" of helium-3, transported by cargo space ships no later than 2020. Gazprom, the state-owned energy giant , is said to be strongly supportive of the project.
The US has appeared much more cautious, not least because scientists are yet to discover the secrets of large scale nuclear fusion. Commercial fusion reactors look unlikely to come on line before 2050.
But many in Moscow's space program believe Washington's agenda is driven by a desire to monopolise helium-3 mining. They allege that the US President, George Bush, has moved experts on helium-3 into key positions on NASA's advisory council.
The plot, says Erik Galimov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, would "enable the US to establish its control of the energy market 20 years from now and put the rest of the world on its knees as hydrocarbons run out".
Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.