Will China have an Apollo moment?

China launched its first lunar rover mission, the latest in an ambitious space programme symbolic of its rising global stature. Could it put a human on the Moon in our lifetime? And should we care?

Huddled around television sets, a nation waits with baited breath as a spacecraft door is opened. Slowly an astronaut emerges, the blackness of space behind him. He gestures to the camera before edging his way out. A few moments later a flag is waved, red with gold stars on it. This is China’s first spacewalk – on 27 September 2008, China became the third nation to independently carry out what is known in space exploration as an EVA (extra vehicular activity). The man in the suit, Zhai Zhigang, joined Russia’s Alexey Leonov and America’s Ed White in the history books as his nation’s first space walker.

Of course, the then Soviet Union and the Americans did this back in the 1960s, a time in which China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. But decades on, China is catching up. Its progress in space, when compared with the United States, has been likened to the story of the tortoise and the hare. Only now China is moving slightly faster than the tortoise.

Earlier this month, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) launched Chang’e-3, a lunar mission named after a Moon goddess with a six-wheeled rover named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, on board. China has made no secret of its designs on the Moon, with speculation that one of its citizens will walk on the surface within the next ten years. Could China have an “Apollo moment” within our lifetime? And if it does, should we care?

If the Chang’e-3 mission lands successfully, China will be the first nation since the US and Soviet Union to put exploratory spacecraft on the Moon – the last time being the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. As Nature magazine reported, an X-ray spectrometer on a robotic arm will probe the soil’s chemical composition, and ground-penetrating radar will also study soil and rock structures to depths of up to 100 metres (330ft). The mission could, according to Roger Launius, Senior Curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, “help to answer some important questions about the origins of the Moon and geologic processes there.” A potentially interesting prospect for science, but of course, Moon missions have never solely been about science.

In September 1961, President John F Kennedy set the US the challenge of landing on the Moon before the end of the decade. Fuelled by Cold War fears and supposedly by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy wanted to take on and beat the Soviet Union at something very difficult, and in the process persuade the rest of the world to work with them. Space was a way of showcasing US power and ingenuity. “If you can do big things well, even if people don’t like you, they will respect you,” says Kevin Pollpeter, ‎Deputy Director, Study of Innovation and Technology in China, at The Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, in San Diego.

Unlike Apollo, there is neither a Kennedy-style speech this time, nor a publicly stated deadline to meet. But there is no doubt that China’s strength as a space-faring nation is growing, and as with the US and Soviet Union first time around, this is symbolic of shifting power balances back on Earth. The safety and reliability of China’s Long March launch vehicle has reached world-class levels, with over 160 launches. They have mastered satellites, commercial launches, deep space and human space flight – completing EVAs, space rendezvous and dockings. According to Pollpeter, “by the end of the decade the Chinese say they want to move from being what is classed as a major space power to being a strong space power.” This would put them on par with the US, Russia and Europe. Within a little more than a decade, the only working space station in orbit could be Chinese. It announced plans to take international astronauts aboard its larger space station, scheduled for completion at the end of the decade – a time when the International Space Station may be out of service.

While Apollo was about the Cold War, it is harder to glean the exact motives for China’s lunar programme. Pollpeter thinks it is “mainly for symbolic reasons”. The country admits to being in competition with the US, Europe and Russia, but maintains it’s not in a race. It doesn’t want to spend money to do something as quickly as possible. “China is aware of how the USSR fell apart,” he says. “So they don’t want to spend too much to take away from other areas of economic development.”

That doesn’t tell the full story. China is in a space race, but it’s with other Asian countries like India, Japan, Malaysia and Korea. The context is different. “Much of this has to do with economics,” believes Smithsonian’s Launius. Countries are asking whether they can sell satellites or landers. Among the other countries, there has been some comment that China has collected a “string of pearls”, because of its collaboration with smaller nations assisting with space programmes and satellite launches. And India seems keen to keep up with the Chinese in space achievements, launching a probe to Mars last month. Although India is still far behind, its efforts to reach a similar level are indicative of the perceived regional strategic benefits. China wants its share of the commercial launch market worldwide to grow from 3% to 15% by the end of the decade, if not before, and to have 10% of the satellite export market.

As with Apollo, China’s missions to the Moon could also reap huge technological benefits. Apollo spurred many advances, from portable cordless vacuums to microchips in your computer. China is hoping for a similar effect to make it more competitive globally. By 2020, the world’s fastest growing economy aims to have more than half of its growth created from science and technology.

But, as with the US and Soviet Union, the early days of China’s space programme is military to some extent. “Ninety-five percent of space technology is considered dual use, meaning of value to both the civilian and military communities,” says Pollpeter. “China can use space to project power further from its shores, and to more accurately carry out strikes against adversaries.”

Earlier this year, for example, China’s space agency said it launched three satellites to clean up space debris orbiting the Earth: one equipped with a robotic arm that could pick up junk. Some officials, however, fear that this is actually an anti-satellite weapon programmme, designed to eliminate observation or communication satellites belonging to another country. The US Department of Defence has publicly stated its concerns. An 83-page Pentagon report on Chinese military developments, issued last May, highlighted China’s development of a “multidimensional programme to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.” Not that China is the only nation working on space weaponry – America is too – though US law prohibits Nasa from collaborating or organising bilateral exchanges with China.

Yet the idea of seeing another Apollo-type event may just be a case of wishful thinking, a consequence of perceiving it as the epiphany of the space exploration agenda. Technically, China could do an Apollo-type event: Smithsonian’s Launius puts the cost of doing this for the Chinese at around $150 billion. But whether the rewards are really worth the cost to the economy and policy is another matter. As the US and Russia have found, these types of missions are popular, but they risk breaking the bank to achieve. The US supports its space programme, but is reluctant to increase Nasa’s funds. Nasa’s budget for 2014 is more than a billion less than 2012, at its lowest levels since 2007. “When the Chinese are standing on the Moon, there will be many members of the US Congress that will proclaim their “shock” at that happening, and that they would have supported the US space programme with more funding,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Department of National Security Studies, at the US Naval War College. “At least that’s my personal opinion."

But if the Chinese leadership decides to move forward, they don't have the same kind of accountability to the public or a legislative body as happens in other countries, says Johnson-Freese. “Funding a space programme is much harder in democracies.”

However, Launius believes similar Apollo-style missions may not resonate with the public in the same way as it did four decades ago. Instead the next race could be to exploit resources. So, perhaps China won’t have an Apollo moment, but there may be something else in its place. Either way, it will bring a reward that is less tangible, but no less important: inspiration. China seems determined to inspire its citizens through its own space achievements. Earlier this year, female taikonaut Wang Yaping gave the first live lesson from space to 60 million students on the effects of zero gravity. One user posted in response on the social media site Weibo, according to CNN: "The US used to be proud of their space class, (but) now we've made it, too! We should be proud of this. What others have, we have it too."

Regardless of when or how China chooses to send a manned mission to the Moon, it seems that the next human to set foot on the lunar surface will most likely be Chinese. This summer, a video playing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square displayed inspirational visions of China’s prowess. The countries vast and beautiful landscape filled the screen, before cutting to the familiar and grainy Apollo landing footage. An astronaut hopped and bounced on the Moon, before placing a flag on its surface. But the flag didn’t have the familiar stars-and-stripes pattern. It was red with gold stars on it.

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