China’s space dream on track

The Long March 5 lifts off December 27 on its return-to-flight mission. The vehicle is a key element of much of China’s space plans, including missions to the Moon. (credit: Xinhua)

Last January 3, China dazzled the world with the landing of the Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, accomplishing a first for humanity. On December 14, its Yutu-2 rover set the record for longest active rover on the Moon, breaking the record of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s Lunokhod-1 that was active for ten and a half months (November 15, 1970 to October 4, 1971). Yutu-2 has travelled about 345 meters on the lunar surface and is entering its 13th lunar day.

Soon after China had successfully landed on the far side, the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announced several follow-on missions, to include the 2020 lunar sample return mission, Chang’e-5, followed by Chang’e-6, which will bring back samples from the lunar south pole, believed to be rich in resources like water ice. Chang’e-7 will land on the Lunar South Pole to carry out a comprehensive survey, followed by Chang’e-8, which will lay the groundwork for a research base on the Moon by 2036.

Some of these follow-on lunar missions, however, depended on China’s successful launch of its heavy lift rocket, the Long March 5. Two earlier test launches (2016, 2017) of the rocket were either partial or total failures, resulting in a two-year hiatus to fix the engineering problems. On December 27, the Long March 5 successfully launched into orbit in a stunning nighttime liftoff, sending the eight-tonne Shijian-20 technological experiment satellite into its planned orbit.

Given President Xi Jinping’s space dream to turn China into the world’s leading space power in the next two decades, the success of the Long March 5 put China’s path to that goal back on track. With a capacity of 25 tonnes into low earth orbit (LEO), 14 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit, and eight tonnes to Earth-Moon transfer orbit, the Long March 5 is a leap in China’s rocket payload capacity. China is also developing the Long March 9, its super heavy rocket with a payload capacity of 140 tonnes into LEO and 50 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit, with a first launch in 2028. The Long March 9 will be utilized to launch missions such as Chang’e-7 and Chang’e-8. Of note is the fact that most Chinese stated space deadlines have been met on schedule.

For Xi, broadcasting China’s military and space power are two essential ingredients of his own assessment of what makes a country great. We saw the demonstration of China’s military power in its 70th year national day military parade, on October 1. Following close on the heels of military power is China’s space power, specifically its growing ability to offer low-cost launch capabilities with ever-increasing payloads; a critical technology if China hopes to meet its space goals of permanent lunar presence by 2036. In a speech given to heads of military academies and training schools in November 2019, Xi stressed the urgent requirement to create a new type of military personnel, proficient in new types of warfare, including space, and for whom loyalty to the Communist Party of China (CPC) trumps any other loyalties.

Following the successful flight of the Long March 5, we should expect the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission to launch by December. Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) specified that the Chang’e-5 will carry a lander, an orbiter, an ascent module, and a return capsule, designed to survive the high-speed reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. While the first two steps—orbiting and landing on the lunar surface—have already been accomplished by China, attempting a return mission carrying two kilograms of lunar samples will be a first for the country.

China’s strategic reasons to be first

The strategic significance of being the first to settle the Lunar surface has been highlighted, time and again, by China’s top space scientists, such as Wu Weiren; Ye Peijang, the head of CLEP; and Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of CLEP, who is also research professor at the Institute of Geochemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In fact, back in 2011, Ye had expected the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission to be launched in 2017. Had the Long March 5 successfully launched in 2017, Ye’s expectation might well have been fulfilled. Ouyang stated in 2002 that “the moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy and resources for human beings… whoever first conquers the Moon will benefit first”. Ouyang stated in 2013, “The Moon is also ‘so rich’ in helium-3, which is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion”, that this could “solve human beings’ energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.”

From a policy and strategic perspective, it is critical we understand the reasons why these Chinese space scientists steer policy and resources for its space program and long-term ambitions. Contrary to misguided claims that China’s space policy and ambitions are only driven by junior officials, or that the lunar missions are nothing but the aspirations of some junior Chinese scientists (see “The myth of the ‘new space race’”, The Space Review, November 25, 2019), a factual assessment of scientists and policy makers involved in the lunar program will tell you that those who drive its space program are senior civilian and military officials, and who are top level CPC members.

For instance, it was Ouyang Ziyang who in 2002, first called out for China to establish a lunar settlement mission. By 2006, he was made in charge of the CLEP forwarding the argument that “lunar exploration is a reflection of a country’s comprehensive national power…it is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people’s cohesion”. So admired is Ouyang within China for his contribution to its lunar program, that in 2014, the CPC took the nationally acclaimed step of naming asteroid 8919 as the “Ouyang Ziyuan Star”. He is called the “father” of the Chang’e missions. Ye Peijan, head of CLEP, and a top CPC leader, was awarded China’s highest civilian honor for his contributions to the lunar program during the 70th year celebration of the establishment of the PRC last year. Lieutenant General Zhang Yulin, former deputy head of China’s Manned Mission, highlighted the critical significance of cislunar for China’s national rejuvenation in 2016. Zhang, an astronautical engineer, is now a top commander within the PLA Strategic Support Force, China’s version of a space force.

While analyzing China’s success is space, it is critical to remember that the strategic narrative driving those space ambitions is the deep-seated ideological commitment by China to be first on the Moon and beyond. China takes its historical lessons of territorial firsts seriously, forwarding such first-presence claims on resource-rich South China Sea, even establishing a nine dash line there, 2,000 kilometers from its territorial shores, when the international limit set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is 200 nautical miles for Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Needless to say, it was the aspirations of top Chinese space scientists like Ye Peijan, Wu Weiren, and Ouyang Ziyang a decade ago that led to the establishment of an ambitious lunar program with demonstrated successful results today. China’s space program now has a dedicated patron in the country’s president, Xi Jinping, for whom space is a critical technology alongside artificial intelligence and robotics that will result in the Chinese century. It is high time we understand China’s political system and institutions for what it is, a one-party-driven political system, and give up this tendency to project our political systems and utilize our conceptual frameworks to understand China.

In the final analysis, China’s ideological approach to the Moon and its resources is a nationalistic discourse in which such space investments are viewed as adding to “national rejuvenation.” Lunar resources are regarded as strategic resources that will result in a beneficial position for China, relative to others, in the international system. To falsely believe that these long-term space ambitions are articulated by low-level junior scientists and policy-makers is to deliberately ignore the fact that very senior space scientists and CPC members are in the forefront of this futuristic space dream.

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