The successful landing of China’s first lunar vehicle represents a significant leap for Beijing’s ever-expanding space program. Chinese media is now reporting that Yutu has successfully reawakened after a potentially dangerous two-week hibernation to ride out the darkness of the lunar night. Yutu can now continue its detailed mineral survey of our planet’s nearest neighbor.
Yutu is interesting in its own right. It is also an important symbol of China’s growing interplanetary ambitions. As the space programs of other nations slow down, Beijing continues to make significant investments in exploring our solar system – investments Chinese leaders expect will have significant payoff.
Yutu’s soft landing on the lunar surface came just a few days after a serious incident on the International Space Station (ISS). A cooling pump malfunction resulted the suspension of non-essential activities on the ISS. Astronauts went on emergency spacewalks to fix the cooling system. In the worst-case scenario, this problem could have led to the abandonment of the ISS.
Even by the most optimistic estimates, the ISS will remain serviceable only until 2028. If it is still operational by that time, it will probably have a neighbor in low Earth orbit.
Beijing has a publicly stated goal of launching a permanently manned space station by 2020. Just last year, Chinese astronauts conducted their first successful orbital docking procedure. Barring any unforeseen events, China could have humanity’s only operational space station in roughly a decade.
China initially sought to join the International Space Station, but was blocked by the United States over fears of Beijing obtaining “dual-use” weapons technology. In 2007, China successfully tested anti-satellite ballistic weapons.
However, strategic benefits are just one of the many motivations for China to invest in space. There are, of course, huge scientific advantages to having a presence above the Earth. Furthermore, Beijing expects its space station to “strengthen the national sense of cohesion and pride.”
Finally, there is a very real possibly of reaping astronomical economic rewards. In 2012 Planetary Resources, a commercial space mining company, announced its intention to “add trillions of dollars to global GDP” through asteroid mining.
Chinese media has stressed the resource exploration aspect of Yutu’s lunar survey. Yutu carries ground penetrating radar capable of determining the mineral composition of the Moon’s crust. Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences says the Chinese space program is motivated in part by “extraterrestrial resource development.”
Some outside observers worry about China’s ongoing space achievements, and call for America to launch a new space race. However, NASA’s budget has been seriously constrained in recent decades. Even ongoing, technologically viable missions, such as the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn, may have to be scrapped for budgetary reasons.
Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who visited Russia’s Mir station in the 1990s has another proposal for dealing with China’s growing space ambitions: “I think right now a lot of people see it as kind of crazy to co-operate with the Chinese, but I think it’s the next logical step.” He believes China should be brought onboard an international mission to return human beings to the surface of the moon.
A day before Yutu’s successful reawakening, Xu Dazhe, the new head of China’s space industry, was at the International Space Exploration Forum in Washington lobbying for increased extraterrestrial cooperation. Mr Da said that China is “willing to cooperate with all the countries in the world, including the United States and developing countries.”
Some countries, most notably Russia and Germany, have already begun cooperation with China’s space program.
China’s efforts in space follow in the footsteps of the American and Soviet programs. China’s orbital vehicles are largely based on Russian designs. According to some media, China’s relatively late start means that other countries shouldn’t be too concerned about Chinese efforts in space. However, a historic parallel from China itself serves as a warning against self-satisfied complacence.
In the early 1400s, China’s Ming Dynasty had the greatest fleet the world had ever seen. Massive ships carried thousands of Chinese sailors from southern China to India, Persia, and Africa. Utilizing expert shipbuilding technology, the Chinese were able to transport giraffes and rhinos back to the Ming Court in Nanjing.
Despite its huge technological lead on contemporary nations, Ming China abandoned its oceanic exploration for political and economic reasons. New leaders believed that maintaining relations with distant lands was too costly, and had little value for their great empire. European adventurers ended up reaping the benefits of oceanic trade, and within a few centuries China was left far behind.
Space has immense strategic, scientific, political, and economic potential. China’s leaders would not make such huge investments in space if they did not expect concrete benefits. The rules that apply on Earth may extend beyond our planet: first contact is less important than a sustained presence.