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China Moon Rover Landing Marks a Space Program on the Rise

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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China's first moon rover, Chang'e 3

China's first moon rover rolls out from its stationary lander after touching down on the moon December 14, 2013. Credit: Xinhua/Li Xin

China cemented its reputation as the fastest rising star on the space scene this weekend by landing a rover on the moon—a challenging feat pulled off by only two nations before: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “This is a very big deal indeed,” says lunar scientist Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “Landing on the moon is not something easily attained—it requires precision maneuvering, tracking, computation and engineering. It is a delicate task and the Chinese success reflects a mature, evolving and capable program.”

The Chang’e 3 mission touched down on the moon Saturday (December 14) after launching December 1 on a Chinese rocket. The lander included a four-legged stationary probe and a six-wheeled robotic rover that, with mast deployed, stands about 1.5 meters tall. The spacecraft is the first man-made object to land on the moon in 37 years, and coincidentally touched down exactly 41 years after the last humans departed the lunar surface. Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt launched off the moon to begin their return trip on December 14, 1972, space history expert Robert Pearlman points out at collectSPACE.com.

The Chang’e 3 landing is “no small achievement,” says Roger Launius, associate director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “There is a measure of pride at home and prestige abroad that accrues to the Chinese space program.” At the same time, he adds, China is replicating an achievement the U.S. and the Soviet Union mastered decades ago, and one that private teams, some of which are made up of undergraduate and graduate students, are aiming to match in the near future for the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. “Some people who might be concerned that the Chinese are demonstrating these capabilities, and who are running around with their hair on fire—I’m not sure that’s appropriate.”

Those in a tizzy about China’s growing space prowess might include the members of Congress, led by Congressman Frank Wolf (R–Va.), who passed a law in 2011 that explicitly forbids NASA from cooperating with China on any space activities. Wolf has called China “fundamentally evil,” and has said the law is necessary to prevent China from stealing NASA technologies, which it might use for military purposes. And some in the space industry fear that China’s rise will eclipse U.S. leadership in space and cost American companies dollars. Commercial space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, whose Bigelow Aerospace company is building inflatable space habitats, has said China is likely to claim ownership of the moon if other nations do not step up to challenge them.

China’s latest achievement may also sting for some in the U.S. as it comes on the heels of NASA retrenchment in planetary science and exploration. NASA’s budget has been battered by sequestration and other federal funding cuts, and the reductions are hitting the planetary science program hardest. The space agency may soon be forced to choose between prematurely shutting down its Cassini orbiter program at Saturn or its Mars rover Curiosity mission.

Yet space does not have to be a zero-sum game, and some experts advocate for greater U.S.–Chinese cooperation at a time when China appears to have more money to spend than NASA does. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden himself has protested the law prohibiting him from working with the Chinese, and has advocated increased collaboration. “We’re the only agency of the federal government that does not have bilateral relations with China,” Bolden complained to the House Committee on Appropriations in March.

Ultimately, both friends and foes of the Chinese space program will be watching eagerly for the next move from a space agency that is clearly on the rise. China has said it eventually aims to land astronauts on the moon—a prospect that is “at least an order of magnitude more difficult” than landing a rover there, Launius says, largely because of the need to supply life support and return the crew home again. China is also building a space station in Earth orbit on which it hopes to post people continuously. So far, two teams of Chinese space flyers have docked with a prototype module in orbit called Tiangong 1 for short stays. With China’s impressive track record lately, not much seems to be beyond the nation’s scope down the line.

Clara Moskowitz About the Author: Clara Moskowitz is Scientific American's associate editor covering space and physics. Follow on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Uncle.Al 10:52 am 12/17/2013

    Russia hasn’t innovated in decades. NASA is a sump of political debt-paid managers. The Saturn 5 was wanged together by von Braun et al, making it up as they went along. The Space Scuttle already had all the answers, plus CAD/CAM CNC. It was a travesty. Social advocacy and its culture of a goddess universe, victimology,
    rule of the disempowered, diversity…is madness. Redirected stupidity is not intelligence, whatever its talents for presentation.

    China is run by engineers. QED. God save us from the congenitally inconsequential.

    Link to this
  2. 2. RSchmidt 11:11 am 12/17/2013

    The republican party won’t be happy until they have outsourced everything to the Chinese.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tuned 12:24 pm 12/17/2013

    Yet another titanic waste of human resources adding unnecessary pollution to the Earth.
    The most dangerous thing is unenlightened neo-intelligentsia.

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  4. 4. Pius 6:59 am 12/18/2013

    I believe that we should explore space as one species. Mankind should put aside our petty differences and explore space together for the benefit of all mankind. I know it sounds very idealistic but it also makes a lot of sense. Only by sharing the risk and the immense initial cost will we have a hope of great success. Sadly today while China is looking to the stars the other space faring nations seem preoccupied with trivial pursuits. Regardless to achieve such a feat should be celebrated by all of us. Gosh there is a robot on the Moon!!

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  5. 5. Crasher 6:43 pm 12/19/2013

    A brilliant effort by the Chinese. Good luck to them. I hope for the future mankind can all share in these achievements and not take up with the petty arguments here on Earth.

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  6. 6. SciLover 8:34 pm 12/19/2013

    Well, China will not stop at this — they will go all the way to manned landing and base building, potential disasters in the meantime be damned. One thing I can surely say about their endeavors is that they will not be the least bit afraid to risk lives to attain their goals, and of course the US will not indicate their indignation and alarm until China has essentially done what they are setting out to do. The moon is the best earth observation platform in the solar system, and the west is now in the process of abdicating it for what they think is higher ground some tens of millions of miles away on Mars. A shame. I can only hope China has a higher minded plan for the moon than I think they do.

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  7. 7. Carlyle 5:30 am 12/24/2013

    Congratulations to the Chinese people. Let us hope their intentions toward the rest of the world are benign. Hope is probably all we have because the Western world has abrogated its leadership in many technical fields & on current trends will not have the muscle after all the military cuts, let alone the will to stop them should they chose to be aggressive. If we do end up under a Chinese yolk, we will have deserved it. The Chinese finance everything from a surplus while the West is addicted to spending what it does not have & rewards mediocrity while putting roadblocks up against innovation & daring. A pox on all those who have brought us to this.

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  8. 8. hkraznodar 5:24 pm 12/26/2013

    @Uncle.Al – “Redirected stupidity is not intelligence, whatever its talents for presentation.” This makes me think specifically of you. Go hate monger elsewhere.

    @Rschmidt – This is not a platform for your political fanaticism. Go rant on MSNBC or some other ultra-leftist site.

    @tuned – I disagree but at least you aren’t hate mongering so thanks for that.

    @Pius – The most dangerous creature in the world is an idealist. Name a monster in human form from history and the odds are that the person you named was an idealist. Those “petty differences” frequently involve the survival of entire ethnicities. Are you willing to give up your cellphone and computer so that a child in Africa can have reliable clean water and food every day? Most people are not.

    @Carlyle – Um, sort of. Deficit spending is a form of self enslavement it is true. On the flip side, people need to be held accountable for the harm they do. The last 2 decades of military spending have been excessive and indeed the military interventions by the West have been very wasteful, poorly executed and universally failed to achieve stated objectives.

    @ the others that posted prior to me – Well said.

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