China became the third country to land a probe on the Moon on January 2. But, more importantly, it became the first to do so on the far side of the moon, often called the dark side. The ability to land on the far side of the moon is a technical achievement in its own right, one that neither Russia nor the United States has pursued.
The probe, Chang’e 4 (named after a moon goddess), is symbolic of the growth of the Chinese space programme and the capabilities it has amassed, significant for China and for relations among the great power across the world. The consequences extend to the US as the Trump administration considers global competition in space as well as the future of space exploration.
One of the major drivers of US space policy historically has been competition with Russia particularly in the context of the Cold War. If China’s successes continue to accumulate, could the US find itself engaged in a new space race?
China in Space
Like the US and Russia, China first engaged in space activities during the development of ballistic missiles in the 1950s. While they did benefit from some assistance from the Soviet Union, China developed its space programme largely on its own. Far from smooth sailing, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution disrupted this early programmes.
The Chinese launched their first satellite in 1970. Following this, an early human spaceflight programme was put on hold to focus on commercial satellite applications. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping articulated China’s space policy noting that, as a developing country, China would not take part in a space race. Instead, China’s space efforts have focused on both launch vehicles and satellites – including communications, remote sensing and meteorology.
This does not mean the Chinese were not concerned about the global power space efforts can generate. In 1992, they concluded that having a space station would be a major source of prestige. So, a human spaceflight programme was re-established leading to the development of the Shenzhou spacecraft. The first Chinese astronaut or taikonaut, Yang Liwei, was launched in 2003.
In addition to human spaceflight, the Chinese have also undertaken scientific missions like Chang’e 4. Its first lunar mission, Chang’e 1, orbited the moon in October 2007 and a rover landed on the moon in 2013. China’s future plans include a new space station, a lunar base and possible return missions from Mars.
The most notable feature of the Chinese space programme, especially compared to the early American and Russian programmes, is its slow and steady pace. Because of the secrecy that surrounds Chinese space programme, its exact capabilities are unknown. However, the programme is likely on a par with its counterparts.
In terms of military applications, China has also demonstrated significant skills. In 2007, it undertook an anti-satellite test, launching a ground-based missile to destroy a failed weather satellite. While successful, the test created a cloud of orbital debris that continues to threaten other satellites.
The movie “Gravity” illustrated the dangers space debris poses to both satellites and humans. In its 2018 report on the Chinese military, the US Department of Defence reported that China’s military space programme “continues to mature rapidly.”
US vs China
Despite its capabilities, the US, unlike other countries, has not engaged in any substantial cooperation with China because of national security concerns. In fact, a 2011 law bans official contact with Chinese space officials. Does this signal a new space race between the US and China?
Some US officials, including Scott Pace, the executive secretary for the National Space Council, are cautiously optimistic about the potential for cooperation and do not see the beginning of a new space race. NASA Administrator Jim Brindenstine recently met with the head of the Chinese space programme at the International Astronautical Conference in Germany and discussed areas where China and the US can work together.
However, increased military presence in space might spark increased competition. The Trump administration has used the threat posed by China and Russia to support its argument for a new independent military branch, a Space Force.
Regardless, China’s abilities in space are growing to the extent that is reflected in popular culture. In Andy Weir’s 2011 novel “The Martian” and its later film version, NASA turns to China to help rescue its stranded astronaut.
While competition can lead to advances in technology, as the first space race demonstrated, a greater global capacity for space exploration can also be beneficial not only for saving stranded astronauts but increasing knowledge about the universe where we all live. Even if China’s rise heralds a new space race, not all consequences will be negative.
Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut in space in October 2003. China was only the third country, after Russia and the U.S., to conduct a crewed mission.
China was excluded from the International Space Station largely due to concerns over its space programme’s connections to the military and U.S. legislation barring such cooperation.
That didn’t stop China from launching in 2011 its own space laboratory, named Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”), which orbited Earth until last April. The station hosted two crewed missions and served as a test platform for docking procedures and other operations.
The year 2020 promises to be a big one for China’s space programme. It plans to send its first probe to Mars and complete a homegrown global navigation network. The latter will link more than 30 satellites providing real-time geospatial information worldwide — China’s answer to GPS.
By 2022, China hopes to complete a space station fit for long-term habitation, with standards matching those of the International Space Station, though smaller in size.
And moon development? The National Space Administration declared in a video last April, “China’s dream of residing in a lunar palace will soon become a reality.”
Nasa’s 1st flight to moon marks 50th anniversary
On December 21, 1968, three men flew to the moon for the first time in human history. Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders read from the Book of Genesis on live TV as they orbited the moon on Christmas Eve.
To this day, that 1968 mission is considered to be NASA’s boldest and most dangerous undertaking. That first voyage by humans to another world set the stage for the still grander Apollo 11 moon landing seven months later.
There was unprecedented and unfathomable risk to putting three men atop a monstrous new rocket for the first time and sending them all the way to the moon. The mission was whipped together in just four months in order to reach the moon by year’s end, before the Soviet Union.
Apart from the reading of the Old Testament by the three astronauts, there was the photo named “Earthrise,” showing our blue and white ball — humanity’s home — rising above the bleak, gray lunar landscape and 240,000 miles (386 million kilometers) in the distance.
The Apollo 8 crew is still around: Borman and Lovell are 90, Anders is 85.
Chandrayaan-2 Gets Ready
“Right now Chandrayaan is scheduled from March 25 to April end. If we miss April, it will go to June, but, we will be targeting April,” shared ISRO Chairman K Sivan, recently.
Chandrayaan-2 mission, costing nearly Rs 800 crore, is an advanced version of the previous Chandrayaan-1 mission about 10 years ago. It’s a totally indigenous venture and comprises an orbiter, a lander and a rover.
(The author is Associate Professor of Political Science, Cameron University. theconversation)