On the 14th of December, 2013, after a week in orbit around the Moon, a spacecraft ignited its main engine to began a descent to the lunar surface. As it approached the ground, the thrusters aboard this spacecraft began to fire, putting it into a gentle hover 330 feet above the surface. After spotting a suitable landing location, the spacecraft resumed its slow, gradual descent. Finally, at 8:11 am EST, the spacecraft’s landing legs contacted the lunar surface. The first ‘soft-landing,’ or powered descent, of a human-built object onto the Moon’s surface in 37 years had just been accomplished.
That almost 4 decades have gone by before this incredible feat of technological prowess was repeated reveals the decayed state of popular enthusiasm and national priority given to the exploration of outer space since the close of the “Space Race.” The United States is now without a dedicated launch vehicle to send its astronauts into orbit and is facing devastating budgetary cuts in this tough fiscal environment, while the Russian space program wallows without a long-term vision or specific goals. The major players in space are now shadows of their former selves, trying to survive on the glory of the Apollo program and the height of space competition in the 1960s.
This is why this recent landing on the Moon is of such importance. It was not the United States which accomplished this feat; the last time we were on the Moon was in 1972, when Apollo 17 became the last manned mission to visit our celestial neighbor. Nor was it the Russians; their last Moon landing was done as the Soviet Union in 1976, when their Luna-24 lander touched down and then returned a sample of lunar soil to the Earth. Rather, this recent landing was accomplished by a new player in outer space: the Chinese.
China has only recently entered the realm of outer space exploration and development. Their first manned mission took place in 2003. Since then, they have rapidly accelerated their level of technological and technical accomplishment: they have conducted a number of manned missions, engaged in spacecraft rendezvous, and have experimented with a prototype space station. They have accomplished in the last decade what it took the United States and Soviet Union multiple decades to pull off. Now, with this mission to the Moon, the Chinese are beginning to extend their reach further than low-Earth orbit. As with the United States in the 1960s, their eyes are set on the Moon.
Before the Apollo moon landings which sent humans to another world for the first and only time, the United States embarked on a complex lunar program which consisted of multiple landers, the Surveyor Program. These landers did what the Chinese spacecraft just did: orbited the moon, successfully de-orbited, gradually descended to the moon’s surface, and then accomplished a powered landing. They were precursor technology to the Apollo Lunar Landing Module, a demonstration that such a feat was indeed possible. Now, the Chinese are hoping to demonstrate the same using their own technology.
This all comes at a time when the United States and Russia are ceding their hegemony in space to new players. While the United States and Russia wallow with shrinking budgets and limited goals, the Chinese are rapidly increasing their space budget and setting out to accomplish great things. That the first moon landing in 37 years was done by the Chinese should send signals to the Western world that our hesitation to further invest in the exploration and conquest of space means we have lost their competitive edge. If we do not want to live under a Chinese moon, or if we want to peacefully co-explore and co-inhabit the other worlds of our solar system, we must once again be willing to have bold visions, take on tough challenges, and spend significant money in that pursuit. Regardless, whether or not we do so, the Chinese are. This has been the first moon landing in 37 years; it definitely will not be the last.
After all, outer space is rapidly becoming the next frontier. In the 1960s, the “Space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union was a competition of political prestige and national power played out outside of our planet’s atmosphere. It was a clash between civilizations that, unlike every other in the past, took place off the Earth. The United State’s “victory’ was not only a triumph for science, technology, and the human spirit, but also a very significant political victory. It asserted American hegemony not only in space but also on Earth. It is now the Chinese trying to assert hegemony and build their prestige, as seen by their growing assertiveness and economic dominance in their region of the world. As was the case in the 1960s, they see outer space as another way to demonstrate their power and their prowess. Their activities in space, and their forays to the moon, are done with the same political purposes as the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s.
The Chinese lander, called Chang’e-3, is a fascinating piece of technology. It is enormous, weighing almost 2,600 pounds. Equipped with a radioisotope heater unit and solar panels, it is capable of operating on the lunar surface for at least one year. It carries a payload of seven instruments and cameras, which will conduct scientific study of the moon while also taking pictures of its surface and the Earth above. Significantly, many analysts believe this lander to be a technological demonstration for larger, more powerful landers to come. Already the Chinese are planning a sample-return mission, in which they will scoop up lunar soil and return it to Earth, using this design. It may very well serve as the foundation off which the Chinese will eventually develop a human lander.
This lander was not the only thing the Chinese deployed on the lunar surface, however. Aboard it is a rover, called Yutu, that will carry out studies of and operations on the Moon for at least 3 months. This rover is significant in size, larger than the rovers the United States put on Mars in the mid-2000s and only slightly smaller than the Curiosity rover on Mars today. It carries its own slew of scientific instruments and cameras, and is capable of studying the interior of the moon using a surface-penetrating radar system. Significantly, the rover China now has driving around on the moon is only the 3rd rover to ever operate on the lunar surface. The only other two, Lunokhod 1 and 2, were Soviet operated. The United States has never put a rover on the moon.
December 14th, 2013 will be remembered as a very significant day for human spaceflight and exploration of the solar system. It is the moment when a new player, the Chinese, stepped up to accomplish the feats that the old players, the United States and Russia, have stopped pursuing. Perhaps this is an indication of further things to come. Perhaps the Chinese will be the first to return to the moon instead of Americans or Russians. Perhaps this landing will serve as motivation for us to begin to reinvest in our own space program. Either way, there is now a new flag on the moon along with the American and Soviet flags: the red Chinese star.