Last week, China launched its first lunar probe, the Change'e 3, which its parent nation bills as its most advanced robotic mission to date. If all goes according to plan, this 6-wheeled rover will only be the first in a series of first robotic, then human explorers hailing from China. As of this weekend, the Chinese reached another milestone with its mission when Change'e entered lunar orbit.
Needless to say, the landscape in space is changing as we speak.
Even before news of the Chinese lunar rover broke, many were already worried that America is losing its long-standing position of unassailable space dominance. When the announcement was made concerning the cancellation of the Constellation Program in 2010, it meant that America, the nation that went from the ground to the Moon in just 8 years will, for the first time since 1961, find itself without a vehicle with which to send men into space. This certainty came true two years ago when space shuttle Atlantis flew for the final time. The irony, until either NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) or private spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts get operational, we will have to rely on the Russians to get us into space, a notion that our former enemies are exploiting to the full.
Cue the Chinese.
It is an undeniable fact that China is the world's fastest growing economy, having justovertaken Japan for the world's number 2 spot. For some, the question is not 'if' the Chinese will surpass the United States, but only 'when.' However, while the Chinese are making undeniable gains here on Earth, the sudden revelation of a space plane for a nation that launched its first astronaut only 10 years ago came as a bit of a shock. The problem: Chinese intents in space have already raised a few eyebrows.
A few years ago, China announced a new missile that is capable of shooting down a satellite. Naturally, knowing that the Chinese have developed such a weapon (undoubtedly at great cost) leads many to ask what they plan on using it for. Also, 6 years ago, the Chinese announced plans to go to the Moon, with the original target date being 2020. Just last year, China launched its first space station. Needless to say, the Chinese have big plans for their space program, whose purpose remains, in the eyes of some, ambiguous.
So, why care at all?
Believe it or not, what goes on in space can have huge ramifications for what happens here on Earth. Think about it: do you have a cell phone? Satellite TV? GPS in your car? If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, space has a direct impact on your life in a way that you probably took for granted. Now, while daily conveniences are nice for individuals, space can have a huge strategic importance for military planners.
For these reasons, plus many on Earth like a myriad of human rights abuses and a dictatorial, communist government, have some politicians are now openly questioning the intent of the Chinese space program. In fact, Congress even held a hearing in Washington D.C. to debate this issue.
For those members who viewed China suspiciously, there were plenty of reasons to do so, namely the satellite killing missile, China's lack of openness about goals, and the country's political climate on Earth, which is hardly what most would consider ideal. On the other hand, those who see China as a potential ally in space also have their key points, namely China's rapidly growing economy, which could make the nation a leader in the commercialization of space and thus an ideal business partner. Also, as China becomes more of a presence in space, there is hope that it will realize that antagonizing other space-faring nations is a bad idea and that cooperation is better than conflict. As a final idea, this could simply be a case of a nation (China) copying the innovations of another (America). After all, in a little-known bit of trivia, the Russians built a space shuttle (it flew once).
In the end, the only thing known for certain is that China is, literally, on the ascent. As for its motives, those remain in question.
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