China is ready to go where no Chinese man has gone before. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has outlined a five-year plan to pave the way in the 21st-century version of the space race. The nation plans to send two probes to the moon by 2018, and launch an exploratory mission to Mars by 2020.
Last Tuesday, the CNSA held a press conference to release a set of policies that included China’s goals for exploring the solar system. Wu Yanhua, deputy chief of the National Space Administration, said Beijing plans to launch its first probe around 2020 for orbiting and roving exploration purposes, followed by a second mission that includes the collection of surface samples from Mars.
“The white paper sets out our vision of China as a space power, independently researching, innovating, discovering and training specialist personnel,” Wu Yanhua said.
The Chang’e 4 mission will set out for lunar exploration and will be the first probe ever to explore the far side of the moon – the side of the moon that never faces Earth. The Soviet Union photographed and cataloged this hemisphere in 1959 with its Luna 3 satellite, but neither a spacecraft or astronaut has ever landed on its surface. Prior to the launch of the Chang’e 4, the Chang’e 5 will be sent to collect samples on the moon’s surface. The Chang’e 5 is scheduled to launch in 2017.
China is desperately trying to catch up to the United States, Russia, and the EU in an aggressive manner, and their goals are enormous for such a short time frame. The CNSA’s Wu Yanhua said, “Our overall goal is that, by around 2030, China will be among the major space powers of the world.”
The Red Dragon didn’t exactly hit the ground running in the space race during the Cold War. China didn’t launch its first satellite until 1970, and by that time the United States already put the first man on the moon. China has invested billions of dollars and resources since, focusing on research and training for space exploration. Since 2003, China has successfully produced a spacewalk, landed a rover on the moon, and launched a space laboratory that is planned to evolve into a large space station. China has also sent five individual crews into space in the same time frame, putting the country in competition with the United States and Russia – the only two other nations to have done so.
China’s Martian probe would collect samples, search for signs of life, and conduct research into the origin and evolution of the solar system. NASA currently has three probes orbiting Mars: The MAVEN, Odyssey, and MRO. Its two rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, explore the red planet’s surface.
Wu Yanhua made sure to point out that China will cooperate with other international space agencies, with the exception of NASA. US Congress prohibited NASA from working with the Chinese Space Administration in 2011, claiming risk of national security.
During Donald Trump’s campaign for presidency, the now President-elect said “I love space. Space is terrific.” Trump space advisers Robert Walker and Peter Navarro outlined the United States and NASA’s goals for deep space exploration back in October:
● Beginning technological implementation of human exploration of the solar system by the end of the century.
● Directing the NASA budget toward deep space science.
● Creation of an aggressive program for the development of hypersonic technology.
● Start negotiations to assure the viability of the International Space Station beyond 2028.
When asked by Forbes if the Trump Administration will see space as a national security priority, Walker said, “Trump space policy puts a priority on reducing the vulnerability of our military space assets through use of multi-satellite constellations and new technology for servicing and refueling those constellations.” He believes that US space assets play an important part of meeting the national defense requirements.
Robert Walker and Peter Navarro co-authored a Space News op/ed in October. In this piece, the two warn that both China and Russia have motives beyond simple space exploration in the 21st-century space race. They wrote that “both China and Russia continue to move briskly forward with military-focused initiatives. Each continues to develop weapons explicitly designed to deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt, or destroy America’s eyes and ears in space.”
Walker and Navarro wrote, “Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.” Walker says that public-private partnerships will be a requirement in the years to come if the United States is to achieve in human exploration of Mars and beyond.
While it appears as though the United States has no issues cooperating with the European Space Agency, it doesn’t seem like America is going to be holding hands with China into the stretches of the outer solar system. Trump has kept no secret about his issues with the rising nation. The President-elect stomped on the “One China” policy by openly speaking with Taiwan, has claimed that China has reverse-engineered and stolen technology from the US, and has even said that the nation “rapes our country.” It’s going to be hard to cooperate in space when you’re calling a nation a bunch of rapists on planet Earth.
China has money to burn, and a desperate need to catch up to other world powers. To stay relevant in the solar system, the United States will have to invest into NASA, and work with private space organizations to ensure that goals for future space exploration are met, and do not overlap. The Chinese have thrown down the gauntlet, and we don’t want to be left in the space dust in the years to come.