China recently achieved a historic feat by landing on the far side of the moon. Without a doubt, this is a big deal. But it isn’t necessarily the beginning of a new space race as much as it is evidence that exploration beyond low Earth orbit is picking up momentum. That’s been a long time coming, but it signals the dawning of a new chapter of global ambitions to explore our neighborhood in this solar system.
The significance of China’s Chang’e-4 mission success is both an immediate operational benefit and a longer-term scientific contribution. Previous to this mission, no country had landed a spacecraft on the side of the moon opposite the one we see from the Earth. The moon is in a synchronous rotation as it orbits the Earth every 27 days. So it seems we always see the same side from the Earth.
Thanks to a satellite relay the Chinese put in lunar orbit last summer, the China National Space Administration has established a sustained communications link with a lander and rover on the opposite side — the far side — of the moon. That’s a first and a significant accomplishment given that communications with previous missions have broken off as spacecraft circumnavigating the moon travelled the distance on the far side.
Until now, contact has only reestablished when spacecraft witness the “Earth rise” that U.S. astronaut Bill Anders and the Apollo 8 crew first recorded for us a half century ago.
The Chang’e lander set down in the Von Kármán crater in the southern hemisphere of the observed, but never before explored half of the lunar surface. Previous Apollo missions carrying a dozen astronauts and a wide variety of equipment as well as vehicles on missions beginning with the Apollo 11 Eagle landing have all been on the half of the moon we see clearly from Earth.
The other side of the Moon is unblemished by human boots or robotic machines. Now that the Yutu-2 rover has departed from the Chang’e lander, we’re beginning to see images of a very different lunar surface. Despite the impression perpetuated by rock band Pink Floyd’s album title “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the moon isn’t any more dark on the ‘far side” than the “near side” we see.
During “new Moon” periods when the lunar surface is not illuminated, the far side is fully exposed to sunlight and experiences extreme temperatures of more than 250 degrees Fahrenheit and more than -200 degrees when the lunar surface is in darkness.
From a technical and operational perspective, the Chinese have also figured out how to design a roving robotic vehicle that can survive temperature extremes on a previously unexplored part of the lunar terrain. Like the rovers the U.S. landed on Mars over the past 20 years, each have been designed to be more capable and more survivable. That’s big progress and that trend will continue as new technologies are developed to pursue more ambitious opportunities.
The scientific content of the Chinese mission will be unfolding in the months and years ahead. The far side of the moon has been impacted over millions of years by meteors and is far more rugged than the smoother lava surfaces on the near side that we see routinely. Some of the resultant craters penetrated the lunar crust may reveal more readily the range of minerals and resources on the lunar surface beyond anything we have seen on the near side.
The Chang’e also brought along a science package to test the agricultural viability of growing plants on the moon. Hollywood has always been able to help us visualize capabilities that exceed reality. In this case, consider this Chang’e science contribution to be the precursor of Matt Damon’s fictional green thumb in “The Martian.”
None of this adds up to anything approaching a “space race.” Fifty years ago this year, the U.S. accomplished the goal of sending a human to the moon beating the Soviet Union to claim the world’s superpower prize during the deepest, most dangerous phase of the Cold War. Until then, this was the stuff that only science fiction was made of and goal was seemingly existential.
Since then it’s been all about the quest of exploration. We made return trips and proved this was an achievable, repetitive and realistic objective. Ever since, humankind across the planet has been building on that capability developing new capacities and technologies to make such follow-on missions worthwhile.
Today, there are three nations capable of launching a human into space — the U.S., Russia and China. Many more have been sending satellites, robots and platforms to low earth orbit and beyond. Commercial companies are on the verge of making space routinely accessible to humans. Perhaps the closest analog we can all relate to is the development of the commercial airline industry that has made nearly every corner of the Earth accessible over a similar span of time. But with the “second machine age” fully underway, the pace of acceleration for the means to explore space is picking up exponentially.
In the short years ahead, exploration will continue as the stepping stones are installed. Humans will return to the Moon as we firmly establish reasons to do so. The United States, China and the commercial ventures are all eyeing such plans over the next decade. The next human to land on the lunar surface will be the first person since U.S. Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan lifted off – at this point, the last man on the Moon. Whoever gets that person there will win short term bragging rights for laying down that next stepping stone.
Much more importantly, all humankind on our little planet in this solar system, among the billions of such celestial bodies in this vast universe, will be the ultimate beneficiaries and will have the potential to follow in increasing numbers. In the history of human exploration, that’s the pattern that will be repeated. At this point, it’s less a race and much more a journey.
Sean O’Keefe was NASA administrator during the George W. Bush administration and is a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School.