On 3 January, Chinese Chang’e-4 lunar probe successfully landed on the far side of the moon, the first such mission in human history. China plans to launch a more advanced Chang’e-5 later this year. That probe is expected to collect samples on the moon and return to Earth.
The success of Chang’e-4 was an important milestone in the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). China is gradually approaching its objective of a crewed lunar landing. Nearly fifty years ago, American Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon, marking a critical step in human civilization. But men have not landed there since 1972. Project Apollo served only US-Soviet contest for hegemony in pace. When the Americans were sure that they had won the race, the ambition to explore space was put aside.
The Apollo missions did not lead other countries to space exploration because no country other than the US and USSR was able to afford the huge cost. It was extremely difficult to sustain the project even for the US. The cost of one launch of the Saturn V rocket, the carrier of Apollo 11 in 1969, was nearly $400 million, roughly the size of the total budget for the US National Science Foundation that year.
Fifty years later, the situation is fundamentally different. Space exploration is no longer the prerogative of superpowers. Besides the US, Russia, and China, India has also made an ambitious plan to put astronauts in space by 2022. With constantly improving manufacturing and new material technologies, the cost of space launches has decreased remarkably. Space X has conducted many successful launches of recoverable rockets and its launch cost per kilo payload has been reduced to below $2000, one tenth that of the space shuttle launch. The costs of launches in India and China are also below $5000 per kilo.
Another major change affecting space exploration is the gradual advancement of 3D printing technology with extensive potential uses. Astronauts will be able to produce parts and components in space stations, thus reducing the number of supply launches. In the future, 3D printing will play an enormous role in the construction of a permanent space station on the moon with inexhaustible moon soil as the raw material.
These technological advancements have driven a new wave of space fever across the world. President Trump has reactivated the plan to send astronauts to the moon and the target now is to land humans on Mars by 2033. Private space companies, such as Space X and Blue Origin, have thrived. There are also similar competitors in China. The construction of a permanent space station and a rocket launch platform on the moon will be critical to human exploration of wider space. And we are gradually approaching that objective.
Most American media have made positive comments on the success of Chang’e-4. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed his congratulations on Twitter and described the mission as ‘a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment’. The Chinese side revealed that scientists of the two countries had conducted close communications in the process. The American side told China about its satellites in orbit around the moon while China shared with the US the longitude, latitude and timing of Chang’e-4’s landing and expressed the hope that American satellites would observe the process. The interaction was in sharp contrast to the tense relationship in other areas of science and technology. The contrast implies opportunities for China-US cooperation in the area of space exploration.
Although both countries have made great progress in space technologies, they are also both at a rather primitive stage in terms of developing and using space. Neither country is fully capable of building permanent space stations in the space, let alone doing so on the moon or making use of planetary resources. Collaboration will reduce the cost of space development for both countries and enable them to aim at more ambitious targets.
China-US space cooperation will also steer more countries to join the effort to develop space instead of choosing a side between the two countries. After the end of the Cold War, international space cooperation has increased. The International Space Station launched in 1998 has been operated through cooperation between the US, Japan, Europe, Russia, Canada, and Brazil. The four major satellite positioning systems in the world, GPS (US), Beidou (China), GLONASS (Russia) and Galileo (Europe), may also complement each other to provide the most accurate positioning services. Once China and the US engage in a major space project, other countries will also take an active part, thus jointly taking human exploration of space to a new stage.
China-US space cooperation will effectively stimulate development of the relevant industries and bring tangible benefits to the people. Space exploration will set in motion a series of space industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, resources, energy, and tourism. These may become new sources of growth for the world economy, promote progress in industrial technologies, and help address some global challenges such as climate change and energy depletion. New products and services will then improve people’s lives and contribute to social progress.
Entry into a new domain will bring hope and cooperation will occur when there are benefits. The fifty-year history of space cooperation offers a more optimistic contrast to the China-US competition back on Earth.