Space has become the place to make political statements, and with this moon landing China is challenging established powers
Hours after settling on the surface of the moon, the Chinese lander lowered a ramp and the Jade Rabbit rover trundled away on a three-month mission to explore the Bay of Rainbows, a lava field regarded as one of the most beautiful features on Earth’s natural satellite.
The touchdown last Saturday marked the first soft-landing on the moon in more than three decades, and the first excursion of a lunar rover in more than four. The feat was captured by an onboard camera and swiftly broadcast by Chinese state media. The message was clear: China means business in space.
The moon landing is only the latest success for an ambitious space programme that sees a Chinese space station in orbit in 2020 and a lunar base for astronauts that paves the way for crewed missions to Mars and beyond. Earlier this year, in its fifth crewed space mission, three Chinese taikonauts docked with a prototype space lab and spent two weeks in orbit.
The rapid rise of China as a spacefaring nation does not amount to a new space race, but countries across Asia, and established old hands such as the US and Russia, are watching their activities closely. Experts in the space community say the US could lose its leadership to China by backing missions other countries are not equipped to join. Meanwhile, regional competition between China and India could fuel the militarisation of space, with the unchecked development of anti-satellite weapons.
“Asia’s recent rise in space capability, and especially China’s military space activities, pose a challenge to the establisehd space powers,” said James Clay Moltz, professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, and author of Asia’s Space Race. “They are not racing with China, but they are certainly watching in their rearview mirror.”
Space is a game that everyone wants to play. More than 25 countries have their own astronauts and twice as many operate satellites. The appeal is that the benefits are many. Space technology means better communications and navigation systems; the ability to watch yours and other countries, and, of course, scientific missions. The work attracts scientists and engineers and the technologies they develop make money.
Then there is human spaceflight. Lofting people into space is seen as folly and a waste of money by some academics, including Martin Rees, the UK’s astronomer royal, but the missions bring prestige, foster national pride, and again drive people into money-making technological careers. But more than anything, human missions are symbolic. They send a signal about a nation’s capabilities.
“What is interesting about Jade Rabbit is not so much the soft landing on the moon, but what it all implies. If you can land on the moon where you intended to land, that means in five years you are going to see far more accurate nuclear missiles. If you can rendezvous in orbit, that means a greater anti-satellite capability. Countries look at space as a measure of power, and bound up in that is prestige,” said John Sheldon, founder of the space and cyberspace consultancy Torridon Group, and a former professor at the US air force’s school of advanced air and space studies in Alabama.
But for all the reasons to fling people into space, none has been greater than politics. Even after the Apollo mission, driven by US-Soviet rivalry in the 1960s, space was the place to make statements. When the US space station programme was put together in the 1980s, it was intended as an anti-Soviet alliance of western nations, that brought Japan into the fold in a major way for the first time. When the Soviet Union fell, Russia was embraced as a new partner on the station.
So what are the political motives today? Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, served as a political appointee at Nasa during the George W Bush administration. “The major geopolitical challenges for the US today are primarily in Asia, with the rising space powers of India and China,” he said.
With the US increasingly dependent on space economically and militarily, the imperative is to keep space a calm and quiet place, Pace said. One way to do that is to ensure China and India – and emerging space nations, such as South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia – want the same thing.
So far though, many nations are going it alone. India has shifted away from satellite-based projects that broadcast to rural villages and help with agriculture, to pursue more flagship missions. This year, it sent its first spacecraft to Mars. In 2020, the Indian Space Research Organisation wants to follow up its successful lunar orbiter by landing an astronaut on the moon.
China’s pursuit of anti-satellite weapons – the nation shot down one of its own weather satellites in 2007 – has led India to develop its own weapons in response. The tension is serious.
Moltz said: “China challenges India’s self-image as an Asian technology leader, puts India’s low-cost launch market at risk, and makes its satellites vulnerable to possible military attack.”
Tensions in the region underlie much of Asian spacefaring, be they between China and India, Japan or Vietnam, or between India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea, Moltz said. The latter two countries are embroiled in their own space race on the Korean peninsula, with North and South achieving their first successful satellite launches this year. Unlike the US, Europe and Russia, which have worked together on how to behave in space, there is no history of such co-operation in Asia.
For decades, Britain steered clear of human space missions, investing instead in robotic missions and satellites. The strategy worked well for the economy and created a thriving British space technology industry. In 2010, the government set up the UK Space Agency, which gives £230m a year to the European Space Agency (ESA), making it one of the top five funders. The first Briton selected for ESA’s astronaut corps, Major Tim Peake, is in training for his first mission to the International Space Station in 2015.
Ironically, the US could lose its leadership in space by pushing so far ahead they leave the rest behind, said Pace. The Obama administration scrapped the Bush administration’s plans to return to the moon, and instead set a goal to land an astronaut on an asteroid, then push on to Mars. “It left a lot of countries, pretty much everyone, out in the cold,” said Pace. “There was really a sort of collective shrug, as everyone said ‘Well maybe the Americans and Russians can do that, but it’s beyond us’.”
If Nasa moves ahead without other nations, those left behind might keep their hand in the human spaceflight business by joining forces with China in returning humans to the moon. The US decision over the International Space Station matters here too. The $100bn orbiting station reaches the end of its planned life around 2017, though the nations that run it are debating an extension. If the US pulls out early, the European, Japanese and Russian space agencies might ditch the station and have no other human spaceflight programme to join.
Sheldon said: “If the US pulls out early, Japan will have nothing to offer in 10 years’ time when the US wants to go on a mission, because the International Space Station is the only manned space flight programme Japan is involved with and their expertise will literally be retired. The same could go for ESA, and also for Russia.”
Pace wants the US to change tack and set its sights back on the moon with other space agencies. “The advantage of the moon is that it allows for people to come in at different price points: you can come in at a high level and build a lunar base or facility, or come in with a small rover or experiment. It has more opportunities for countries at different levels of development,” he said.
Politically, it means the US would be in the centre of things, and able to influence the rules, on mining, for example. “If China goes up there and starts mining, will the US want to go back, or will it still see it as been there, done that?” said Jill Stuart, at the London School of Economics.
Moltz said now is the time to start talking about guidelines: “Countries with lunar aims would be well-served to begin talking about consensual guidelines for settling the Moon and engaging in mining and other commercial activities, if they want to avoid future conflicts.”
Where would that leave China? The Chinese are excluded from partnering with Nasa on human space missions, and Pace does not see that changing any time soon. “China is not the Soviet Union, but none the less the political relationship is still fraught. I don’t think the political conditions are right for a major human space programme, but I can imagine a long term multi-lateral effort with a lot of other countries that meets the Chinese on the moon.”
Ian Crawford, an advocate for lunar exploration and professor of planterary science at Birkbeck College, University of London, pointed to the Global Exploration Roadmap, an agreement among 12 spacefaring nations that sets priorities for space exploration.
“What we must avoid in the 21st century is another Cold War-type space race,” he said. “If we are going to explore space we ought to be doing it in a manner that brings nations together rather than divides them. We got a lot out of the last space race, but for the 21st century we want a more positive, collaborative model. Competition is good up to a point, but really intense national rivalries between China and the west in the 21st century? That is not something we want to see.”
Flagship mission: International Space Station.
Ambition: Crewed mission to an asteroid in 2020s; Crewed Mars orbit in 2030s.
China National Space Administration
Flagship mission: Chang’e 3 lunar lander and Jade Rabbit rover.
Ambition: Space station in 2020; crewed mission to the moon.
Flagship mission: Mars orbiter, Mangalyaan, en route to Mars.
Ambition: First human mission after 2017.
European Space Agency
Flagship mission: Mars Express orbiter.
Ambition: Mars rover in 2018; human mission to the moon in 2024.
Russian Federal Space Agency
Flagship mission: International Space Station/Soyuz rockets.
Ambition: Return to the moon with Lunar Glob.
Japanese Space Agency
Flagship mission: Hayabusa asteroid sample return mission.
Ambition: Selene-2 lunar orbiter, lander and rover for launch in 2017.