This year will be a critical one for the Chinese space program. For the first time, missions that will break new ground in the manned space program, in the series of lunar missions, and in deep space on a mission to Mars, will be carried out simultaneously. Only the United States has had, in the past, a space program of such breadth.
Up until a year ago, the Chinese space program was largely ridiculed in the American press, by news commentators, and even elected officials. China was accused of doing nothing more than what the U.S. had accomplished in the 1960s.
But the U.S. was about to learn that bathing in the accomplishments of the past does not assure a continued position of leadership in the future. Somehow it was not evident to the political pundits that, like the U.S., China’s small steps were to lead to more challenging projects.
Then, China’s Chang’e-4 rover landed on the non-Earth-facing far side of the moon. This complex mission had never been attempted before by any nation. Suddenly, derision turned to concern, as U.S. lawmaker held hearings on Capitol Hill to receive “expert testimony” on the status and plans of the Chinese space program, and whether this could be a “threat” to the United States. Elected representatives asked, “When did China get ahead of us in space?”
Over the past 40 years, since the end of the Apollo program, there have been three presidential proposals put forward to return American astronauts to the moon. The third is the current Artemis program proposed by President Donald Trump.
The two previous were the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative of President George H.W. Bush, announced on the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing, and the Vision for Space Exploration proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004, as part of the “recovery” program from the Space Shuttle Columbia accident the previous year.
Both Bush programs centred upon an American return to the moon, not just to visit, but “this time to stay.” Lunar industrial development would lay the basis for manned missions to Mars much further in the future. But neither program was supported by the Congress, which refused to commit the funding for such an “expensive,” long-term initiative; one that would certainly extend beyond their term in office.
Opposition to the space program flows from the mistaken notion that spending money on space exploration means taking it from somewhere else; that it is something nice to have if you can afford it.
China, on the other hand, sees its space exploration program as a leading driver for scientific breakthroughs and technological advancement, resulting in improved productivity. It is estimated that the 1960s Apollo program returned roughly 10 dollars to the economy for every dollar NASA spent.
The U.S. space program, as in China and every other nation, is a source of great pride and inspiration, especially for young people. In the call for applicants to train the next class of astronauts, where there were a dozen positions open, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) received more than 18,000 applications.
China started its space program years later than the Soviet Union, the U.S., and Europe. As China moves forward only the United States has no working relationship with China in space science and exploration.
A few years ago, while he was NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden told an international space conference that if the U.S. did not change its anti-China policy, there would come a time when the rest of the world would be cooperating with China, and “we would be on the outside looking in.”
In a matter of days, the China National Space Administration will send the “Tianwen” spacecraft off to Mars. For the first time, a first Mars mission will include an orbiter, lander, and rover. The plan is to push forward. No need to do what other countries have already done.