China’s Long March to the Moon

China plans to send humans to the Moon. Why we should care

The lunar crater Daniell, seen from the Chang'E 2 spacecraft

Controversy quickly followed astonishment with the recent release of a white paper outlining China’s intentions in space.  Sparking particular buzz from the Internet was a statement about human lunar missions being an objective for future Chinese space efforts.  That statement drew comment ranging from sophisticated to simplistic, yet in my opinion, most of the discussion to date neglects the essential point of what this means to humanity’s future in space.

The report lays out China’s plan for missions to the Moon of increasing complexity and capability.   The Chinese orbiters Chang’E 1 (2007) and Chang’E 2 (2010) made global maps of the Moon’s morphology and topography.  The Chang’E spacecraft demonstrated China’s ability to navigate trans-LEO space.  After Chang’E 1’s mapping mission was complete, the spacecraft was deliberately de-orbited to impact the Moon.  However, after surveying a potential landing site for future missions, the Chang’E 2 spacecraft left lunar orbit and was sent to the Earth-Sun L2 point, a stable location 1.5 million km from the Earth.  This maneuver is quite complex and its successful completion demonstrated their capability to maneuver spacecraft throughout cislunar space.  It also lays the groundwork for more complex lunar and planetary missions in the near future.

The white paper reiterates the Chinese strategy of orbiter-lander-sample return for lunar exploration with robotic missions, of which the Chang’E series is the first step.  The paper mentions human spaceflight activities occurring only in low Earth orbit, specifically asserting their determination to conduct an “independent” space exploration program.  Closing remarks in that section of the report have been drawing the most attention: China intends to conduct “studies on a preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.”

In NASA terms, such wording would lead no one to conclude that anything remotely flight-ready was within a decade or two of occurring.  But our way is not their way.  The Chinese clearly are systematically pursuing a series of steps to incrementally increase their flight experience, technology base and operational expertise in low Earth orbit, but in a direction unmistakably toward the Moon and throughout cislunar space.

Despite some pronouncements of military doom – visions of Red Army Space Troopers descending upon us – a war in space does not appear imminent.  Over several pages, the report repeatedly proclaims China’s intention to “peaceably explore and use outer space,” especially in conjunction with an endless series of United Nations mandates, innumerable Moon treaties and international kumbayah.  Perhaps, as Queen Gertrude once observed, they doth protest too much.

Military action is not the only possible geopolitical threat on Earth or in space.  Although it is probably too early to tell, the real issue is how serious is China about expanding their sphere of operations beyond low Earth orbit to the Moon.  Currently, their human space program appears to be relatively benign, with simple Earth orbital missions, the construction of a rudimentary space station, crew EVA – all steps and capabilities that a nascent space faring nation must learn and develop.  Their proposed robotic lunar exploration plan likewise makes sense, in that they first orbit and map, then survey in detail to land, rove, explore and return samples.  For each step, a new capability is developed, building on existing ones, with all contributing toward a future strategic position.  Hmmmm – an incremental architecture with cumulative series of small but interlocking steps.  What a concept!

The reaction of space observers in the West seems bifurcated along the lines of “The sky is falling!” or “Who cares?”  For the former, some note that the Chinese space program is run by their military.  Moreover, the demonstration test of a Chinese anti-satellite weapon in 2007 did not engender the international peaceful good feelings so stridently expressed in the white paper.  Those who read potential danger in Chinese intentions in space are not being unreasonable, even if there appears to be no immediate threat.  For the latter group, nothing that China has done, is doing or ever could do in space would bother them.  ASAT testing?  Any alarm is labeled “hysteria.”  Chinese lunar landings?  So what?  We did that 40 years ago.  These people know not what they don’t know.  Holding such a position is patently naïve.

The real cause for concern is not a Chinese presence in cislunar space or on the Moon, but our absence from it.  Although much has been made of China’s purported movement toward capitalism in recent decades, they still possess an authoritarian political system, one with scant regard for the rule of contract law, copyright, private property and western notions of free market dynamics. Although some may not care whether China conquers the Moon, if they are the only ones on the Moon, they will determine what operational regime and legal template will prevail there.  Advocates of “commercial space” might do well to carefully consider such a scenario – commercial companies are incorporated under national auspices on Earth, pay taxes to terrestrial governments, and are subject to the laws of the country in which they are based.  They will not be free agents either in space or on the Moon.

I argued almost two years ago that there is a new “space race” but that it is quite different in character from the first one.  The outcome of this race will determine what kind of politico-economic paradigm will prevail on the new frontier of space.  One can imagine a situation in which a country establishes a permanent presence on the Moon and maintains control of the resources there.  Yes, the Moon is a big planet, but the valuable concentrations of water lie in small areas near the poles.  Water at the poles of the Moon allow a space faring entity to develop routine access to the entirety of cislunar space, where all of the economic, scientific and security space assets of many countries reside.  Space control in the new century does not refer to “Death Stars” bristling with space weaponry, but to situational awareness, assurance of service, and the defense and maintenance of space-based assets.  Control of cislunar space – meaning in this case the ability to routinely travel throughout its extent and to all the various orbits of cislunar satellites – does not mean to militarize or weaponize space, but rather the permanent presence of a space faring power of a particular ideology or worldview, undeterred by the absence of a competing ideology.

And if some say “So what?” to that, the more fool they.

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