China shoots for the far side of the moon

 China has reportedly launched the Chang’e 4 lander to the moon.

Chang’e 4 is the most ambitious and difficult robotic mission ever sent to the lunar surface. The landing may occur in the first few days of January when the sun is over the target area.

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Since the probe — which carries a variety of cameras, sensors, a miniature biosphere, and a rover — will land on the far side of the moon, data and images from the craft will be relayed by a satellite called Queqiao launched earlier this year.

China’s moon program is part of that country’s drive for super-power status. Just as the United States reaped hefty soft-power dividends by beating the Soviets to the moon, China hopes to profit by showing that it too is capable of conducting deep space operations. The fact that Beijing will gain access to the abundant resources of the moon would not be a bad thing either, from China’s point of view. 

However, recent developments in China’s economic posture may have long-term effects that would derail that country’s plans to use the exploration and later economic exploitation of the moon for its benefit.

Recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal suggests that the bloom may be off of China’s economic rose. A combination of rising costs, crippling taxation, capricious regulation and widespread corruption has started to inhibit China’s economic growth. China’s theft of intellectual property and unfair trade practices have started to irk the West and has drawn the attention of the Trump administration. The country’s so-called coming social credit system, designed to clamp down control over the private behavior of Chinese citizens, will certainly not help matters. Western investors and entrepreneurs have started to bail, increasingly seeing China as being unfriendly to private business.

What would the effects of a Chinese economic downturn, self-inflicted by the Beijing government, have on the country’s long-term lunar ambitions? While going to the moon would have a great deal of benefit for the country that undertakes it, such an effort requires a vibrant economy and a culture of risk-taking. If Beijing decides to squelch both in favor of massive government control, it is not likely to sustain a vigorous space effort.

The Soviet Union can serve as an example of a great power that could not sustain a space effort because of a dysfunctional socioeconomic system. The Soviets made a big splash, alarming the West, with a series of space firsts, including the first artificial satellite in Earth orbit and the first human being in space. But, by the late-1960s, the Soviet space effort felt to second place in the wake of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Currently, Russia’s space program is entirely dependent on its space station partnership with the West. Moscow makes brave pronouncements about future missions but lacks the money to pay for them.

In the meantime, Chang’e 4 will constitute a great scientific achievement, landing on an unexplored region of the moon, proving the technology needed to examine the side of Earth’s nearest neighbor that is always facing away. China will enjoy a brief period of prestige and attention as a major space power.

However, other countries and even private companies are preparing their own moonshots. India and Israel will shortly launch their own lunar landers. A number of private companies, sponsored by NASA, could soon make the moon a well-trafficked place, paving the way for astronauts to walk on the moon for the first time in decades. Unless China reforms its economy and gives up the dream of total top-down control of its society, those astronauts will not likely include its citizens.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

This piece has been updated.