turn and face the Chang’e

On 3 January 2019 02:26 UTC, China landed a rover on the far side of the Moon. The Chang’e 4 mission, named after the Chinese lunar goddess, is an enormous technological and scientific feat.

For an entire generation, only China has committed sufficient resources and expertise to achieve a soft landing on the Moon. Russia returned samples to Earth in 1976. No other entity arrived intact on the Moon’s surface until Chang’e 3 in 2013. Now Chang’e 4 is the first mission to land on the far side.

The question is whether China has the will to sustain lunar exploration.

The United States government abandoned its lunar missions just a few years its citizens landed there. The national goal was to win the Space Race against Russia with this high-profile feat. After achieving this extraordinary and expensive goal, political and popular support dissipated. Presidential leadership changes after each election: Should the nation head directly to Mars, or first establish a base on the Moon? Focus on manned or robotic missions? On satellites of immediate and obvious benefit, on national security, or on scientific exploration of the solar system and universe?

For more than a decade, from 2007 to 2018, the Google Lunar X Prize offered prizes totaling US$30 million to land a robot and perform various tasks on the surface of the Moon. To this date none of the frontrunners — including Astrobotic (US), Moon Express (US), PTScientists (Germany), SpaceIL (Israel), Team AngelicvM (Chile), and TeamIndus (India) — have achieved this goal.

The simple fact is that heading to the Moon at all requires extensive resources, specialized expertise, coordination over multiple tasks, and persistence even in the face of failure. It’s a risky affair, whether seen from the standpoint of a business model or national budget.

What emotions will prove to sustain long-term exploration of the Moon and beyond? National pride or personal egotism, fear of mortality or of being overshadowed, greed or simple desire to make money, curiosity, altruism, sense of accomplishment, or some combination of these and others? In a thousand years, in a million years, when someone looks back, which social system (or systems) will have endured and prospered long enough to send flowers to the stars?

60 years ago, in the era of Sputnik and Laika and Yuri Gagarin, Russia seemed ascendant. 40 years ago I would have said the United States was maintaining its lead during the dawn of the Space Shuttle. 20 years ago, when the International Space Station was constructed, I might have named the partnership of the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, and the nations of the European Space Agency.

But today? Today I don’t know. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed a flyby of Kuiper object MU69 at a mind-blowing distance of 43.4 AU, about 1.5x farther than Neptune. Private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic suggest the will and wealth of a single individual could be the difference maker. The Google Lunar X Prize competitors represent for-profit corporations, national space agency partnerships, philanthropists, and space enthusiasts. 

And China is on the far side of the Moon.

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