Quantcast

Will China’s Moon Landing Launch a New Space Race?

Xinhua / Jin Liwang / Getty Images

By Wendy Whitman Cobb

China became the third country to land a probe on the Moon on Jan. 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 U.S. has pursued.


The probe, Chang'e 4, is symbolic of the growth of the Chinese space program and the capabilities it has amassed, significant for China and for relations among the great power across the world. The consequences extend to the U.S. as the Trump administration considers global competition in space as well as the future of space exploration.

One of the major drivers of U.S. 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 U.S. find itself engaged in a new space race?

China's Achievements in Space

Like the U.S. and Russia, the People's Republic of 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 program largely on its own. Far from smooth sailing, Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution disrupted this early programs.

The Chinese launched their first satellite in 1970. Following this, an early human spaceflight program 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 sign and source of prestige in the 21st century. As such, a human spaceflight program was re-established leading to the development of the Shenzhou spacecraft. The first Chinese astronaut, or taikonaut, Yang Liwei, was launched in 2003. In total, six Shenzhou missions have carried 12 taikonauts into low earth orbit, including two to China's first space station, Tiangong-1.

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 sample return missions from Mars.

A New Space Race?

The most notable feature of the Chinese space program, especially compared to the early American and Russian programs, is its slow and steady pace. Because of the secrecy that surrounds many aspects of the Chinese space program, its exact capabilities are unknown. However, the program is likely on 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 Department of Defense reported that China's military space program "continues to mature rapidly."

Despite its capabilities, the U.S., 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 U.S. and China?

As a space policy researcher, I can say the answer is yes and no. Some U.S. 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 program at the International Astronautical Conference in Germany and discussed areas where China and the U.S. 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.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

In tea, food, or just on your windowsill, embrace the fragrance and fantastic healing potential of herbs.

Read More Show Less

By Ana Santos Rutschman

The world of food and drug regulation was rocked earlier this month by the news of a change in leadership at the Food and Drug Administration. Commissioner Scott Gottlieb resigned and will step down in early April. His temporary replacement is Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
MartinPrescott / iStock / Getty Images

On Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the first 20 chemicals it plans to prioritize as "high priority" for assessment under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Given the EPA's record of malfeasance on chemicals policy over the past two years, it is clear that these are chemicals that EPA is prioritizing to ensure that they are not properly evaluated or regulated.

Read More Show Less
Strawberries top the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list of U.S. produce most contaminated with pesticides. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP / Getty Images

Which conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are most contaminated with pesticides? That's the question that the Environmental Working Group answers every year with its "Dirty Dozen" list of produce with the highest concentration of pesticides after being washed or peeled.

Read More Show Less
A drilling rig in a Wyoming natural gas field. William Campbell / Corbis via Getty Images

A U.S. federal judge temporarily blocked oil and gas drilling on 300,000 acres of federal leases in Wyoming Tuesday, arguing that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) "did not sufficiently consider climate change" when auctioning off the land, The Washington Post reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Mizina / iStock / Getty Images

By Ryan Raman, MS, RD

Oats are widely regarded as one of the healthiest grains you can eat, as they're packed with many important vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Read More Show Less
JPMorgan Chase building in New York City. Ben Sutherland / CC BY 2.0

By Sharon Kelly

A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.

Read More Show Less
Sriram Madhusoodanan of Corporate Accountability speaking on conflict of interest demand of the People's Demands at a defining action launching the Demands at COP24. Corporate Accountability

By Patti Lynn

2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."

Read More Show Less