The Chang’e 3 space-vessel departed from Earth on December 2nd, 2013 7:30 local chinese time. It was driven by one of China’s ‘Long March 3B’ rockets, the largest of that family of launch vehicles. It’s launch took it, presumably, into an earth orbit, than into an earth-lunar transfer orbit, before, as it is at the time I’m writing this, placed into a Lunar orbit. If all go’s according to plan, the lander, aboard which is the Yutu(Jade Rabbit) Rover, will touch down and be the first soft-touch landing on the moon since the Soviets Luna 24 in 1976.
It’s this last fact that I find fascinating. If you look at a list of lunar missions, the plurality of them in the 60’s and 70’s is only astonishing in comparison to the complete dearth of new missions since than. It’s been almost fourty-years since we recovered objects from the moon, since we put a rover on the moon.
Obviously there are other, arguably more impressive feats of space exploration(the Mars Rovers being the easiest example), but as the Chinese set out to bring their program of Lunar exploration to the next stage, I thought I’d reflect on the moon’s exploration and how culture, history and politics play into the realities of science and technology.
The Narrative of the space race is pretty well known, though I’d start discussion of it earlier. While the idea of journeying to other worlds has a long history, it wasn’t really until the early 20th that actual means of doing so were proposed. Rocketry emerged as an early science with the capacity for travel beyond the earths atmosphere. Early pioneers such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky mapped out the possibilities of such technology and by the 1920’s various organizations in various countries; The Soviet Union, Germany, the USA, Britain, etc. were engaged in examining the potential for rocketry.
In the pre-war era, the Soviet Union and Germany had the greatest rocketry programs, the war had the effect of interfering with the soviet programs, but advancing the German programs, as with the development of the V2 Rockets which rained down on Britain. As the allies eventually closed in on the German regime, a rush to acquire German science and engineering know-how, which was undeniably advanced in the period, occured. The Soviets and the Americans boths trove to acquire whatever know-how they could.
It’s been said that in the aftermath of this war, the Americans got the German Scientists and the Russian their technicians. An over simplification, but the post-war American program was clearly based much around German technology in general and Von Braun’s genius in particular. The Soviet program had various german influences, but served more as a combination of extracted German designs and native soviet technologies.
It’s important here to note the relevance of how each country examined and continued it’s space program. Both were fundamentally military in nature. Rockets had gotten so much attention because of the V2’s obvious military application and with the atomic bomb developed by the Americans(and than duplicated by the Soviets), the capacity for long-range weapon delivery systems made rocket research an essential element of both nations military strategies. Within that framework each nation also has ‘pure’ scientists. The Soviets had an ideological reason to support such research, Marxist-Leninism revolving around an idea of the heroic socialist scientist after all.
The launch of Sputnik was both a test of satellite capabilities, and the lattice-work for the production of the R7, both the launch vehicle for those early satellites, and the Soviets earlier ICBM. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the lunch of the Sputnik satellite serious disturbed the American political scene. The Soviets were suppose to be inferior to the Americans in terms of science, for the Soviet space program to appear so far ahead of the American program was untenable. This is really the first shot in the space race, one that galvanized American political opinion behind it. And it is this that serves as the locus for the interesting elements of the later lunar race.
America and the Soviet Union both had reasons for supporting such a program. The power of their respective programs acted as both an external ‘shot across the bow’ as it were, but more importantly to validate each sides propaganda. The early soviet successes in space bolstered the claim that the USSR was the state of the future, an advanced society on the move forward and upward. America used it’s own program to proclaim it’s technological superiority, or at least equivalence. Each side viewed the others program and their own in a same light.
Kennedy of course made his famous proclamation to go the moon. The Soviets, even here, had the initial advantage. They had forward knowledge, and while both projects had failure rates, the Russians also had early successes like Luna 2, the first object to impact the moon. The political will behind these ventures was thus a combination of national pride, international brinkmanship, pure science, and field-testing of technologies for future military applications.
The eventual achievement of landing men on the moon by the Americans coincided with various political events. The end of the Khrushchev era, and a changing of the guard within the soviet State. The thawing of the cold-war, such that grand political gestures seemed less important. Both programs had other scientific goals and other focus’. The Soviet program was beset by new administrators who didn’t quite have the same fervour for glorious Soviet Science as their predecessors. Technocrats who wanted results they could immediately apply to political or economic problems at home.
The Americans had growing economic woes and moon travel was expensive. What happened next was simple; a proposal was put forward to develop a reusable craft that could utilize facet of economies of scale and it’s re-usability to reduce the cost of launching things into space. Once done, it was felt, it would be relatively easily to use this new craft to launch further, cheaper lunar missions.
The Shuttle program never panned out as it was suppose to. Other people have well gone over the issues involved, and you can find them quite readily, but in short; The initial program imagined shuttles going up every week, with a very small refit window. The idea would be launch, land and have it refitted within a couple of weeks. The assumptions were that at this pace new efficiencies would be found. Engineering difficulties and budget cuts meant this never happened, and the costs for the shuttle program never came near what was expected.
The Soviet program lugged along, but experienced more cuts as well. More focus on MIR and other long-term space missions as oppose to retreading the path of the Americans. By the 80’s the Soviet Economy and society were suffering from a plethora of difficulties and more earthly concerns cornered the attention of it’s leaders.
So in short, Lunar exploration has always been a matter of political will. Like many other historical projects of vast cost, they are pursued because the pursuing of them is seen to have political capital and side benefits. To bring us full circle to the Chinese, the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) is in a constant effort to support it’s own legitimacy. It does this primarily through it’s economic means, hence it’s focus on maintaining growth and other economic issues in recent decades. It also, however, places great stock in nationalist talk, and the idea of China ‘Standing up’. Of China taking it’s rightful place in the world. Thus it’s space program has the funding and the focus. Again I think the Chinese also look towards military and economic factors as well. A Chinese built GPS system is on it’s way to act as a counter-point to the American system. Possessing their own telecommunications satellites, as well as anti-satellite weaponry, is perhaps only the beginning. But national pride takes a big place in it. Being just the third nation to put a person into space was a big deal for the Chinese. Being the first to put an object on the Moon in 30 years, also a big deal. Many have said that save for the geo-sensors, not much ‘new’ will be learned by this mission. But the learning isn’t just about exploiting new knowledge for mankind. The Chinese are building know-how, infrastructure and so forth to bolster their space programs. The goal of a man on the moon by 2025 does not seem that farfetched, and is a pretty reasonable time-table. They have the advantage of knowing it can be done and having much more advanced technology than was used in Apollo. They also have, at least for the time-being, the political will to see it done. Given the politics of the thing, in 2025 I expect there to be a Chinese footprint, and most likely a few firsts, such as the first woman on the moon, to have little Chinese flags beside it on various lists.
I wish the managers of the Chang’e 3 good luck, and it will be interesting to see what destiny the moon has for this coming generation.