Questions have been asked about China’s recent, successful Moon landing. The BBC think it’s all about filling a few gaps in our knowledge about the Moon. This is a typically naive view of the matter.
Others have commented on Chinese interest in rare minerals (see illustration). But, of course, the costs of extracting these and then transporting them back to Earth would have little economic utility, at least for another hundred years or so.
So, what is really going on here?
An historical survey of space exploration shows a tremendous amount of activity in the 1960s and 1970s, with a drop-off in the 1980s and in every decade since.
This was despite massive advances in all the technologies that should have made space exploration easier. The obvious deduction from all this is that space exploration was essentially a totemic exercise in power projection, with the earlier “Space Race” being very much a part of the Cold War rivalry of the USA and Soviet Union.
So important was this race that the USA was quite happy to employ a gang of ex-Nazi scientists who had employed Jewish slave labour to rain down rockets on London in WWII.
Once the Space Race and the Cold War were won, there was little real need for a government space program and any commercial applications or requirements could easily have been left to the private sector. But the usual combination of pork barrel politics and long-term fears kept NASA in existence, and once kept in existence NASA had to find ways to justify its existence, while also going along with its relative downsizing.
Reusable “shuttle” spacecraft that weren’t all that reusable, cheap, or shuttle-like was part of the response, as was the Hubble Telescope, and the International Space Station.
This latter project became increasingly dominated by the Russians, however, showing how inherently better they were at this sort of thing. But that wasn’t a problem for the Americans, as the Russians had already lost the earlier Space Race and Cold War.
More importantly, in the post-Cold-War period, NASA went against its actual history to rebrand itself with the help of Hollywood as yet another “equality vector” in the egalitarian-industrial-complex, through such films as “Hidden Figures,” as well as being more “diverse” (i.e. anti-White-male) in its hiring policies. As the ratio of effective scientific output to political posturing in the organisation had slumped to an all-time low, this didn’t present any real problems.
Inevitably the de-Whiting of NASA was also reflected in the major cultural artefacts that refracted America’s space dominance into the Soft Power dimension.
In a galaxy not so far away.
But now, with the Chinese Moon mission, we have entered a new phase, one in which America’s lazy domination of space in actual and soft power terms will be increasingly challenged. The Chang’e-4 Moon landing must be seen mainly in these terms, just as China’s growing number of aircraft carriers are a potent hint that we no longer live in a US-dominated world.
So, how will this new Space Race play out?
Interestingly, despite treading water for some time, NASA has some pretty ambitious plans on file. For example, it even has a plan to go to Mars. As it writes on its website:
Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we’ll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.
One possible date for a manned mission to Mars is 2033, when the Earth and Mars will be tantalisingly close. Interestingly, this will be soon after the date on which China is projected to overtake the USA as the World’s biggest economy in what will be an increasingly multipolar World.
Being first to land men on Mars will be a totemic moment in human history and a symbolic act of power projection. While the Chinese will be doing their best to reverse engineer Western and Japanese technology and improve on it to win the race with the best taikonauts available, America, by contrast, will be complaining that landing men on Mars is sexist and holding transgender sensitivity workshops in case they meet any genderfluid aliens.
There are few things in the future that can be predicted with absolute confidence, but one of the most certain is who will win the next Space Race.