Space Programme, Talking Point

A genuine first

China boldly goes where none have gone before – the dark side of the Moon


Not afraid of the dark: China's lunar rover Yutu-2 or Jade Rabbit 2 explores the far side of the Moon

It was a stunning step for the Chinese when they became the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon on January 3. But was it the same giant leap for mankind that astronaut Neil Armstrong first proclaimed 50 years ago (this coming July) when the United States became the first country to put a man on the Moon?

In these fractured times, the answer partly depends on the country in which the question is being asked. However, one interesting aspect about the wider reaction to China’s space exploits was a divergence of views between Western media outlets and some of their readers. Another is what the landing says about the prospects for further exploration in space, and whether it will prompt a new space race between China and the US.

What was said about the landing in the press?

Most of the Western newspapers highlighted how the lunar landing signals China’s technological coming of age, not least in how it kept in touch with the spacecraft and its rover despite losing line-of-sight contact with Earth.

In Germany, Die Welt began its analysis by highlighting how Europe’s biggest economy dreamed of landing on the far side of the Moon a decade ago but pulled back because of cost considerations. Le Monde brought similar perspective from France. “Exploring the hidden face of the Moon essentially requires having a relay satellite and the political will to return to a star that your rival has abandoned for more than 40 years,” it said.

Many newspapers also regarded the event as a wake-up call for the US in an echo of Russia’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. In this context superpower rivalry was paramount, including in the Sunday Times in the UK, which quoted veteran American hawk and author Michael Pillsbury at length.

He concluded that the Moon landing showed that “China is not the friendly, subservient nation that many in Washington have perceived it to be” and he reminded readers that China wants to “supplant America as the world’s essential power”.

Edward Lucas said something similar in the Daily Mail, arguing “we must wake up to a threat now greater than Russia’s before it’s too late”. But some readers begged to differ, with comments including “strangely I don’t fear China, Russia or any other bogeyman the Western media try to frighten me with. It’s actually the Western world and its current direction that deeply troubles me.”

Others chastised the Daily Mail for replacing so swiftly the news of the landmark landing as its top story with another featuring the Duchess of Cambridge’s family frolicking on holiday in the Caribbean.

Across the Atlantic, readers of the Washington Post also clashed about the significance of Beijing’s lunar exploit. One social media commentator congratulated China acidly on making good use of stolen American technology. But the second most-liked comment on the site was the retort: “You mean the technology we obtained by allowing German war criminals to continue working on their rockets” after the Second World War.

“If I remember correctly the Chinese were sending up rockets for fun long before US natives were told by James Cook and Columbus to stop calling their land ‘ours’,” the author added.

Also from the US there was a combative response from the New York Times, which chose to focus on the shortage of Chinese media coverage in the run-up to the Moon landing. The implication was that Beijing was fearful of losing face should anything go wrong.

Readers again seemed unimpressed and the most-liked response to that article told the newspaper to take its politics elsewhere, concluding that “this is an extraordinary achievement”.

The suggestions of secrecy also received short shrift from the Global Times, the Chinese tabloid, which laughed at the claims. “We have reported the mission – with photos and celebrations. Are you blind?” it chided. “Chang’e-4’s probe even had its own social media account and live-shared its trajectory. But do you even understand Chinese?”

After months of bad economic and geopolitical news, the Chinese preferred to bask in the technological prowess of the landing. “My country makes beautiful myths come true,” one netizen celebrated, referencing the stories behind the names of the spacecraft Chang’e 4 and lunar rover, Yutu 2. (The former refers to a goddess who escapes Earth to live on the Moon – with the latter, her pet rabbit. The Queqiao satellite, which is beaming the pictures from the Moon back to earth, references the name of another ancient Chinese myth that features a bridge across the Milky Way – built by birds.)

Another trend was relaying the world’s positive comments on the landing, such as those of NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who described it as an “impressive accomplishment”.

That would have pleased the Global Times, which couldn’t resist rehashing the kind of language that celebrated American success during the heyday of the 1960s space race.

China’s actions were “not about the unique glory they bring, but because this difficult step of destiny is also a forward step for human civilisation,” it noted sagely.

Why get excited about reaching the dark side of the Moon?

Going to the far side of the Moon showcases China’s new capacities in space. But perhaps more importantly, it also draws attention to why the Moon is so important in the first place – especially the potential of its mineral deposits and as a possible staging post for exploring deeper into space.

The Economist, for one, must be ruing the day it declared that, “inner space is useful and outer space is history”. In 2011, it marked the cancellation of the US space shuttle programme by suggesting, “there’s no appetite to return to the Moon”. Emotion, not economics, was driving space exploration, it concluded.

As humans, we have long been defined by a desire to explore the limits of our world, even if the costs to do so seemed daunting. It is this trait that drove explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama, facilitating centuries of European domination at a time when China precipitated its decline by turning its back on the unknown and destroyed its ocean-going fleets.

Indeed just as The Economist was writing its 2011 editorial, one of the world’s current visionaries, Elon Musk, unveiled his Falcon Heavy rocket programme to start taking humans back into space again.

Since then, some of the attractions of returning to the Moon (and staying there) have become more apparent. Chief among them is Helium-3, one of the reasons why China is concentrating its energies there. Scientists believe the isotope can be used as the fuel for controlled thermonuclear fusion (i.e. without making the surrounding area radioactive).

The sun produces Helium-3 but Earth’s magnetic field does not let much of it through. This isn’t true of the Moon, which has billions of tonnes of it, making it the Persian Gulf of the solar system. Scientists estimate that eight tonnes of it could generate energy equivalent to about one billion tonnes of coal.

Then there is the ice clustered around the Moon’s poles, discovered a decade ago. Within the next month, India’s first lunar probe will arrive to assess it. The presence of water should not only allow food to be grown on the Moon, but could also provide fuel for the first refilling station in outer space (using electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen). This would make space travel much cheaper as rockets could travel further without having to return to Earth first.

While it is there, China’s lunar rover is also conducting a series of experiments with potatoes, cabbages and silk worms: the forerunners for establishing a Moon base. A group of students from Beijing has already spent the past year simulating living in a lunar module too. This is something the European Space Agency (ESA) is prioritising as well, with architectural plans for an International Lunar Village to replace the International Space Station (ISS), which is due to be decommissioned over the next decade.

The ESA has also been using a simulant for moon dust to test how to erect buildings on the Moon using 3D printing. It likes the look of a huge lava tube near the Marius Hills on the near side of the Moon, which would protect a future community from meteorites (they regularly splash down on the Moon due to its lack of magnetic field).

Are we going to see a new space race?

Aside from its ambitions to launch a space station, China is planning probes to Mars and Jupiter, as well as asteroid missions and a human landing on the Moon by 2030.

There is even more ambitious talk of a permanent colony on the Moon by 2050.

The last time NASA sent someone there was 1972, although the US began to reprioritise lunar exploration about a year ago, shifting some of its focus from the further reaches of the solar system, where a probe has just sent back photos of Ultima Thule, a trans-Neptunian object four billion miles away.

That achievement puts some of the rhetoric about the Chinese seizing the lead in space into context: for comparison, the Moon is about 250,000 miles away.

Other newspapers underscored how NASA can no longer launch people into space, relying on Russian craft to take astronauts to the ISS since 2011. But what has been happening is a transition towards commercial companies doing more of the work, such as Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, which are scheduled to bring astronaut-carrying spacecraft on line this year.

As China’s Chang’e 4 probe was landing on the Moon, Musk tweeted that the first test flight of his Crew Dragon spacecraft is about a month away. This unmanned flight will test the craft’s ability to dock with the ISS, then return to earth.

Musk says that SpaceX is also about to test fly its prototype Starship, which will take humans to Mars (the first paying passenger to sign up is Japanese billionaire Yuzaku Maezawa). If testing goes well, the first manned flight on the 100-person ship should take place in the mid-2020s. The Americans are already on the planet via their InSight probe, which began a two-year drilling programme in November.

Can China and the US work together in space exploration?

Despite its latest Moon landing the US is still far ahead in its achievements in space. It has also been estimated that NASA spends roughly double the China National Space Administration on its space programme ($20.7 billion in fiscal 2018). This represents about 0.5% of the US federal budget, compared to the 4-5% the Americans spent in the mid-1960s as they geared up for the Apollo Moon landings.

The Houston Chronicle argues that humanity would be better served if the US and China worked together in space, just as the US and Russia collaborate through the ISS. But that only started to happen a decade ago, almost 40 years after Sputnik inaugurated the first space race. Before then the icy US-Soviet rivalry prompted numerous scientific breakthroughs, including the development of powerful semiconductor chips. Perhaps today’s Sino-US tensions will lead to similar ‘competitive’ advances by the rival superpowers in areas like artificial intelligence and quantum computing as they seek a similar edge.

Collaboration also seems less likely in a context in which the US has shut China out from participating in the ISS. Then there is the 2011 Wolf amendment, which prohibits NASA from working with China on scientific activities for fear of technology transfers.

Last March Donald Trump also announced the formation of a Space Force to defend the US in space and more specifically its energy grid and global positioning system.

This new sixth branch of the military has support from the likes of Musk and former astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin. Its creation was prompted by concerns about China’s ability to launch rockets capable of knocking out satellites up to 12,000 miles above earth.

The thought of a space war is a horrifying one. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty tried to forestall it with an international agreement that no country owns the Moon. But at that point no one ever envisaged that countries or companies might want to lay claim to mining rights on it.

In contrast, some experts believe a new space race would make war less likely rather than more. One such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who told CNBC that rather than coming into conflict in space, you “just go to another asteroid and get your resources”. He added: “A whole category of war has the potential of evaporating entirely with the exploitation of space resources, which includes the unlimited access to energy.”

Over the more immediate horizon the Moon landing has the potential to lift spirits in China during what is likely to be a difficult year for its economy. But could it have a similar cultural impact to the landings in the 1960s when young boys were soon playing with toy rockets and sci-fi started to become much more of a feature in TV and film? Some of the signs are already there, including a report from Xinhua last week on how the mother of a four year-old boy was initially surprised to find out that he knew about the landings.

“It is the most important news of the day and is even a topic in kindergarten classrooms,” she explained.

Interest may spill over into the cinema too. During next month’s Chinese New Year one of the big releases will be the film The Wandering Earth, inspired by the country’s most famous science fiction writer Liu Cixin and starring martial arts superstar Wu Jing.

And as we pointed out in WiC435 a reality TV show has already proven a hit with viewers. Alibaba-owned Youku last month released Space Challenge, a show that features six celebrities learning how to become an astronaut. There were around 200 million views of the first three episodes alone, suggesting the public probably shares the government’s lunar ambitions.

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