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With the Chang'e 5 launch, China takes a giant leap forward in the race to the moon

With the Chang'e 5 launch, China takes a giant leap forward in the race to the moon
© Getty Images

The Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission has roared into space atop a Long March 5 rocket. If all goes well, it will touch down at the Mons Rumker part of the Oceanus Procellarum or Ocean of Storms, a volcanic plain on the near side of the moon. 

The Ocean of Storms was previously visited by the Apollo 12 mission about 50 years ago. The target area consists of rock and soil that is just 1.2 billion years old, thanks to a volcanic event that took place then.

The Chang’e-5 mission is the most complex that China has attempted. The lander portion will attempt to take samples with both a scoop and a drill and store them in an ascent vehicle. The ascent vehicle will blast off and then rendezvous and dock with another vehicle in lunar orbit The samples will then be transferred into an Earth return module, which will take them back to China for study.

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If China is successful, it will have acquired the first geological samples from the moon since the Soviet Luna 24 mission in 1976. The Chang’e-5 mission has to accomplish a series of tasks in a relatively short period of time. Unlike the Chang’e-3 and Chang’e-4 rover missions, Chang’e-5 is not designed to survive a lunar night. It must gather the samples and return them to Earth within about a couple of weeks of lunar day.

The Chinese moon program, which began with the Chang’e-1 orbiter launches that occurred in 2007 and 2008, demonstrates one of the strengths of China’s approach to space exploration. China has avoided the attention deficit disorder (ADD), start-stop-start again pattern that has bedeviled America’s modern moon program. Beijing is executing a step by step, slow but relentless lunar exploration program that will climax, or so it is planned, with Chinese astronauts on the lunar surface in the fullness of time.

In the meantime, America’s effort to return to the moon had been a victim of shifting political whim. I describe in my book, “Why is it So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” how politics ended the Apollo program prematurely and throttled President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative in the womb. The 21st century has seen President George W. Bush’s effort to return to the moon, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaYoung, diverse voters fueled Biden victory over Trump Biden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race MORE’s decision to not go to the moon and President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE’s initiative to return to the moon, after all. Now the Joe BidenJoe BidenCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Manchin, Biden huddle amid talk of breaking up T package Overnight Energy: 5 takeaways from the Colonial Pipeline attack | Colonial aims to 'substantially' restore pipeline operations by end of week | Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE presidency approaches, placing the Trump Artemis program in some jeopardy.

China is the only country that has landed on the moon in decades. Recent attempts by India and a private group in Israel failed with what aerospace observers termed “ballistic landings” (i.e. crashes.) Thus, China is far and away ahead in the modern race to the moon. The winner of the 21st century moon race will have access to the moon’s resources and position as the gateway to the rest of the solar system and will thus own the future.

China’s rise as a predominant space power would be an historic tragedy. The Chinese communist regime is totalitarian on a scale not seen since Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. From the Uighur concentration camps to the social credit system, China has developed a dystopian society that is entirely antithetical to the Western tradition of democracy and tolerance. Beijing’s drive for world domination, from cyber war to fortifying the South China Sea, is an existential threat to world peace. The lies China told to the world about COVID-19 demonstrate that its government does not play well with others.

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Fortunately, Western lunar exploration efforts are showing signs of life. India is going to attempt another moon landing. A private company in Israel has combined with one in Germany to land on the lunar surface.

Next year will see two American lunar landing attempts, one in July by Astrobotic and another in October by Intuitive Machines, under NASA’s CLPS program. More are slated later.

The Artemis program’s ultimate goal is to start moon landings by humans leading to build a base at the lunar south pole. Whether the effort survives the change of administration or whether it falls prey to the attention deficit disorder that has doomed previous lunar efforts will determine the future of human civilization. The new Biden administration would be well advised to choose wisely.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.