The Head of NASA Is Being Awfully Catty About China's Amazing New Moon Samples

China recently became the first country in history to return samples taken from the far side of the Moon, a historic mission that could have profound implications on our understanding of our natural satellite's evolution and ability to host human life.

But thanks to a law called the Wolf Amendment, enacted by the US government in 2011, American scientists will be largely barred from participating in the analysis of these samples, an impediment leaders of China's space program were quick to point out.

"The source of the obstacle in US-China aerospace cooperation is still in the Wolf Amendment," China National Space Administration vice chair Bian Zhigang told reporters last week. "If the US truly wishes to engage in normal space exchanges with China, I think they should take concrete measures to remove these obstacles."

In a surprisingly spiteful retort earlier this week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson shot back.

"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," he told CNN.

Nelson has often had harsh words for China's space ambitions, suggesting that the country is hiding military experiments in space and intends to seize lunar resources.

Still, the moon rocks statement is puzzling given the Chinese space program's willingness to share its unique scientific treasure. (To be fair, Nelson did acknowledge that he was "pleased to hear" that China "intends to share" the materials, but the overall tone still felt unnecessarily catty.)

That's doubly true because there's still a chance that the 4.4 pounds of material collected by China's Chang'e 6 rover earlier this year can be examined by American scientists.

"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."

While the amendment prevents NASA from using government funds to cooperate directly with China, it has a clause that would allow such cooperation if the agency receives certification from the FBI, proving that there are no threats to national security or risks of inadvertently leaking space-related tech or data.

NASA has already urged scientists to apply to study samples returned by China's Chang'e 5 mission to the near side of the Moon in 2020, announcing that it had received the necessary certifications at the time.

China remains the only country in the world to softly touch down on the far side of the Moon, let alone return samples, making the cache genuinely unique for the scientific community.

NASA, however, is already eying returning astronauts to the surface as part of its 2026 Artemis III mission, something that is "magnitudes more difficult than a robotic landing," as Nelson told CNN.

But whether the agency will fulfill its lofty promises remains to be seen. Its first crewed mission to the lunar surface in more than 50 years is an incredibly complex Rube Goldberg machine involving its Space Launch System rocket, its Orion spacecraft, and SpaceX's gargantuan Starship acting as a last-mile shuttle in lunar orbit.

In other words, NASA has a lot to prove — and the Wolf Amendment only stands in the way of its ambitions.

More on the Wolf Amendment: There's an Extremely Stupid Reason NASA Scientists Can't Study China's Amazing New Moon Rocks