Although the first stage of the space race, one of the main arenas of technological and ideological struggle between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War, was marked by great achievements on the part of the USSR (launch of the first satellite into orbit, launch of the first living organism, etc.), the US began a new stage of it by sending the first man to the Moon. This rivalry, which first began with the launch of artificial satellites, animals, and humans into Earth’s orbit, eventually resulted in hundreds of astronomical discoveries about our universe and flights to other planets in our galaxy.
The space race slowed down after the collapse of the USSR and, consequently, with the end of the Cold War, to give way to another battle between China and the United States in the 21st century.
China, the country that has sent the most rockets into space on various missions since 2018, is making a rapid progress in this field and has become a new competitor of the United States in the space race. Former US Vice President Mike Pence also referred to China in his speech at the 5th meeting of the National Space Council on March 26, 2019: “We are in the space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are higher,” indicating how fierce the competition is and will be.
Founded during the Cold War (1947–1991)—more precisely in 1960, China’s space program was developed in complete secrecy for many years with the involvement of thousands of scientists and engineers under the supervision of the Commission for Science, Technology and Industry of the Ministry of National Defense. Qian Xuesen, the acknowledged founder of the Chinese space industry and one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century in the field of rocket technology, returned to China after being deported from the United States for political reasons. In 1956, he was appointed director of the V Research Academy of the Ministry of National Defense engaged in the production of ballistic missiles.
On the basis of the agency, which became the Ministry of Aerospace Industry in 1983, two independent agencies, the China National Space Administration (CNSA), responsible for the planning and development of space activities, and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), responsible for the development of technologies related to this sector, were created in 1993.
The first models of the Dongfeng intercontinental ballistic missiles, which formed the core of China’s aerospace industry, were developed on the basis of the R2 short-range missile technology (R2, which the USSR exported to China in exchange for uranium supplies, in turn, was developed on the basis of the German V2 rocket). Russia’s technical support to China in these and other areas continued until the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. At the same time, the “Cultural Revolution” (a social movement that served to strengthen Communism and Mao Zedong’s authority by destroying traditional and capitalist values and ended in disaster), which had a major impact on China’s social life, economy, science and culture in the 1960s and 1970s, for some time adversely affected the development of the aerospace industry as well.
Encouraged by the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, into orbit in 1957, the Chinese government initiated a space program codenamed Project 581. Although the goal of the program was to launch an artificial satellite into orbit on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the implementation of this project became possible only with the Dong Fang Hong 1 communication satellite launched by the Chang Zheng-1 (CZ-1) ballistic missile in 1970, making China the fifth country after the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Japan to independently launch an artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit.
The Chinese-made Chang Zheng or, in short, the CZ rocket family (the rocket’s name means “Long March”—commemorating Mao Zedong’s army covering 9,000 km from south to north over 370 days with great sacrifices in the period of 1927-1949 during the civil wars between Nationalists and Communists in China. These rockets are better known internationally by their English designation—”Long March” or “LM”), launched the Shenzhou spacecraft into Earth’s orbit and delivered the Chang’e lunar orbiter to the Moon’s orbit, as well as to its surface.
Short-range missile technology gradually stimulates the development of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, which, in turn, stimulates the production of space rockets. In 1964, China launches into space the first rocket carrying eight mice on board. It happened on July 19, 1964—the first official date in China’s space exploration history. On November 26, 1975, the first recoverable artificial satellite was launched into low-Earth orbit.
On November 20, 1999, CNSA, the Chinese NASA, launched the first unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 1, into low-Earth orbit with a CZ-2F rocket. As a continuation of the project, the final preparatory stage of the path to taikonaut (as astronauts are called in China) space flights was completed with the subsequent similar flights carried out in 2001 and 2002.
After appropriate measures, China launched the first taikonaut-carrying Shenzhou 5 spacecraft into orbit with a CZ-2F rocket on October 15, 2003, under Project 921, thus becoming the third country in world history after the United States and the USSR to send a human into Earth’s orbit. Yang Liwei, China’s first taikonaut, flew around Earth 14 times in a 21-hour flight and landed successfully at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (one of China’s four major space centers, part of the Dongfeng Aerospace City in the Gobi Desert). As a continuation of the program, the first flight carrying a crew of two for five days on the Shenzhou 6 spacecraft took place on October 12, 2005. On September 25, 2008, the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft took the Chinese into space for the third time, and during this flight, one of the crew members, taikonat Zhai Zhigang, went out of the spacecraft to conduct China’s first spacewalk.
In 2003, the CSNA initiated the Chang’e (named after the goddess of the Moon in ancient Chinese mythology) lunar exploration program. Under this program, the development of advanced super heavy-lift Chang Zheng 3A, 3B and 3C rockets began. The rockets launched the Chang’e 1 (2007), Chang’e 2 (2010), Chang’e 3 (2013) and Chang’e 4 (2018) lunar orbiters. On November 5, 2007, China’s first lunar orbiter, Chang’e 1, entered the Moon’s orbit after a 12-day flight, and a high-definition 3D map of the lunar surface was generated on the basis of the collected data. On December 14, 2013, China successfully landed its first unmanned orbiter (Chang’e 3) on the Moon, becoming the third country in the world after the United States and the USSR to do it. Note that this mission was also the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976.
During the third flight, i.e., as part of the the Chang’e 3 mission, the Yutu 1 rover (a mobile robot with wheels that can move; the rover’s name means “Jade Rabbit”—in Far Eastern folklore an immortal mystical creature living on the Moon) explored for 31 months the visible side of the Moon and the surface of previously landings, thus completing the preparation for the subsequent and more complex descents.
Finally, on January 3, 2019, for the first time in history, the Chang’e 4 unmanned robotic spacecraft successfully soft landed on the Von Kármán crater on the dark side of the Moon and deployed the Yutu 2 lunar rover. The Von Kármán crater is located in the giant South Pole-Aitken basin, which is the largest and deepest basin on the Moon, formed by an impact with an asteroid 4.3 billion years ago. This is also the area where the craters are estimated to contain masses of frozen ice. This part of the Moon is also very suitable for radio astronomy, so China’s space exploration plans include installing astronomical instruments, such as a radio telescope, here in the future. China is one of the leading countries in research in the field of radio astronomy, and the largest (in terms of the diameter of the reflector dish (500 meters)) spherical radio telescope in the world today is the Tianyan telescope (literally “Heaven’s eye”, better known in English as the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope, or FAST), installed in 2016 in Guizhou Province in southwest China.
In fact, the “dark side of the Moon” is technically a misnomer: it should be called the far, distant (from Earth) side of the Moon. The Moon is subject to the gravitational force of Earth, which has a much larger mass. Over time the speed of its rotation around its axis decreased and the Moon now rotates on its axis at the same rate that the Moon orbits Earth. As a result, the Moon always has the same face toward Earth—the phenomenon known as tidal locking. As a result, an observer on Earth always sees the same side of the Moon, and the same is true for an observer looking at Earth from the Moon.
During the Chang’e 4 lunar mission, a biosphere experiment was conducted with potato and cotton seeds inside an AI-powered box, containing a small ecosystem that has air, water, and soil. Of the seeds developed with the help of biotechnology in lab environment by Chongqing University specialists and sent to the Moon, only cotton seeds sprouted, and, thus, the first attempt was made to grow a biological product on the Moon.
The main purpose of testing these seeds on the Moon was to study the possibility and specifics of growing plants in various environments and on low-gravity planets. Laying the foundations for sustainable extraterrestrial agriculture is essential for interplanetary travel (a flight to the planet Mars, Earth’s closest neighbor, takes over six months), sustainable colonization of the solar system, and meeting the food demand of these colonies without returning to Earth.
The data obtained from both the near and far sides of the Moon by the Yutu 1 and Yutu 2 lunar rovers reveal what conditions need to be met for microorganisms and other living things, especially humans, to live in space, facilitating the work of the crew who will operate at the research center that the Chinese government plans to build in 2030.
Note that the geological structure of the hidden hemisphere of our satellite is very different compared to its visible side. The near side consists of volcanic plains mostly covered with crystallized basaltic lava, while the far side has craters and mountains of various diameters formed by asteroid, meteorite and comet strikes. It is possible that large-scale exploration that is being and will be conducted on the far side of the Moon may lead to alternative hypotheses regarding the Moon’s origins (the most widely accepted explanation being that the Moon formed as a result of the collision of Earth with a planet called Thea 4.5 billion years ago, when the debris scattered through space were gradually pulled together under the gravitational influence of Earth).
Before Chang’e 4 landed on the far side of the Moon, the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft photographed this part of the Moon in 1959 for the first time. After Luna 3, the USSR’s Zond 3 spacecraft, launched in 1965, was able to take more accurate and high-quality photographs detailed information was collected about the craters, mountains and plains located in the South Pole-Aitken basin located in this area. After the Russians, the Americans were able to compile the first geological map of the lunar surface using Lunar Orbiter 5 in 1966, and with the first Galileo and Clementine missions in 1990.
The next stage of China’s lunar exploration program involves bringing rock samples from the lunar surface to Earth, and the Chang’e 5 mission has already taken the first steps in this direction, delivering lunar material samples in December last year. Thus, the PRC became the third country after the United States and the USSR to successfully complete the lunar sample return mission. Chang’e 6, China’s second sample return mission, is scheduled for 2023.
These examples are expected to shed light on hitherto unanswered questions about the Moon (its internal structure and properties of the deep mantle, geochemical, geodynamic and thermal evolutionary processes, etc.).
China, as well as the United States and the USSR, used ballistic missiles intended for military purposes (mainly for the transport of nuclear warheads) in the first flights of satellites and spacecrafts above Earth’s atmosphere. Over time, these missiles were gradually replaced by new-generation space rockets. In short, missile systems, the production of which was launched mainly in the interests of military and national defense, were modernized and adapted to commercial and research purposes.
After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986 that was caused by a technical malfunction and led to the death of 7 astronauts, US President Ronald Reagan agreed to use Chinese-made Chang Zheng rockets to launch American-made satellites into orbit. Class B communications satellites developed by the US Hughes Aircraft Company are launched into orbit from China’s Xinchang Space Center (unlike the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center mentioned earlier, it is one of China’s four main spaceports, built in 1984 in the safer Sichuan province, far from the USSR borders. The center performs the function of launching into orbit many foreign countries’ commercial communication satellites. It is also one of the main venues for Sino-European space cooperation.) by these rockets. Spacecrafts belonging to Indonesia, Pakistan, Belarus, Nigeria, Bolivia and Algeria were also launched from this spaceport. The technical shortcomings of the CZ-2E and CZ-3B rockets experienced in the 1990s are being addressed thanks to the improved CZ-3B/E and CZ-3C models. According to statistics for the first month of this year, there were 4 problematic flights against 70 successful ones made by CZ-3B, 3B/E and 3B/G5 rockets so far.
The Chinese government launched a special program in 2014 to support the progress of the private sector to further develop aerospace research in the country. As a result, there are about 100 private companies currently operating in China’s aerospace industry, and about half of them are funded by the central government. For example, I-Space, China’s first private company in this sector, successfully sent the first Hyperbola-1 radio satellite into low-Earth orbit in 2019. Another Chinese private company, Galaxy Space, launched the Yinhe-1 5G global satellite, which will provide high-speed Internet, into low-Earth orbit in last January. Another private company, Linkspace, is working on reusable rocket technology and has tested a rocket that can achieve a height of 300 meters and land vertically on a ground station without exploding. Spacety, founded five years ago, has successfully launched four CubeSat satellites into low-Earth orbit.
The emergence of China as a serious player in outer space has intensified the implementation of many NASA missions. The US government, aiming to send another crew with the mission to return humans to the Moon under the $35 billion Artemis program by 2024, intends to apply the resulting knowledge on Mars in the future.
Of the 9 manned flights carried out as part of the US Apollo project in the period from 1968 to 1972, 6 successfully landed on the Moon, and each of the 12 astronauts had the opportunity to set foot on the surface of the Moon.
NASA is currently working closely with the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the British Space Agency (USA) and other international space agencies to implement the Artemis project, as well as with leading domestic private companies Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics to create moon landing systems.
In parallel with the lunar mission, the CNSA has already launched its Mars program. In July last year, a 5-ton Tianwen-1 robotic spacecraft set off for Mars on a CZ-5 rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site. Tianwen-1, which entered orbit around Mars after 7 months of transit on February 10 and was able to send high-resolution photographs of the planet’s surface, will be launched to the surface of the Red Planet in May or June this year if all goes well. Pputting a spacecraft (lander) on the surface of Mars is much more difficult than on the Moon. About half of the vehicles dispatched so far have been destroyed during the descent, unable to withstand the harsh environment of the planet. In the event of a successful landing, China will become the third country (traditionally, after the United States and the USSR) to make a soft landing on Mars, and the second country to send a rover to Mars (so far only the United States has succeeded). The main purpose of the mission is space research, and its scientific objectives relate to the geology of Mars, the identification of minerals and different types of rocks on the surface, etc.
CNSA, whose main goal is to build an orbital station that can permanently operate in Earth’s orbit, like the International Space Station built in 1998 with the participation of NASA, JAXA (Japan), Roscosmos (Russia), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada), launched into orbit its first space laboratory, Tiangong 1, in 2011 and its second station, Tiangong 2, in 2016 as a first step in this project. Essential for multi-purpose scientific experiments, the project is expected to be completed and commissioned in 2022.
On June 23, 2020, the Chinese government launched the first Beidou navigation satellite. The satellite is the first Chinese counterpart to compete with the US-dominated GPS technology. It should be noted that the global navigation system, the application of which extends from the military to strategic areas such as air and water transport, urban planning, telecommunications, etc., is at the forefront of modern technologies that the great powers want to keep under constant control.
In the field of rocket technology, the next-generation CZ-8 space rocket, which made its maiden flight in December last year, is expected to be a reusable rocket that will land vertically on a ground platform after launching spacecrafts such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets out of the atmosphere. The preparations are also underway for the production of the Chang Zheng 9 (fourth on the left in the second image—Long March 9), which will become one of the world’s heaviest payload rockets and will be used to transport the crew to the Moon by 2030, as well for interplanetary flights.
One of the attributes of being a strong state in the modern world is the ability to fly into space, travel to the Moon and distant planets: we witness almost every day how much resources and energy we spend on this. Although the space struggle may seem like an attempt by forces representing different political and ideological fronts to justify themselves and gain access to new resources, it ultimately leads to new discoveries about our galaxy that we never imagined before. Our achievements of less than a century will, in turn, stimulate the progress of humankind, accelerating the process of long-term colonization on various cosmic bodies of the Solar system in the future.