One small step for China in its quest to land astronauts on the moon

Long March-5 rocket blasts off with a robotic lander on board designed to collect lunar rocks and soil

Space has become the final frontier for China after taking another small step to the moon.

In the early hours of Tuesday, a Long March-5 rocket blasted off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on the island of Hainan, carrying the Chang’e-5 spacecraft.

The return mission is designed to collect lunar rocks and soil to help scientists understand the moon’s origins and formation.

“The biggest challenges … are the sampling work on the lunar surface, take-off from the lunar surface, rendezvous and docking in the lunar orbit, as well as high-speed re-entry to Earth,” Pei Zhaoyu, the director of the space administration’s Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center, told a media briefing.

Named after the ancient Chinese goddess of the moon, the Chang’e-5 voyage will take around 23 days with a 48-hour window to bring back samples.

Two lunar vehicles will be deployed after entering the moon’s surface, including a robotic lander.  

If the mission succeeds, China will be only the third country to retrieve lunar samples, joining the United States and the old Soviet Union.

Ultimate goal

“We can conduct sampling through circumlunar and moon-landing exploration, but it is more intuitive to obtain samples to conduct scientific research … the method is more direct,” Pei said, adding that the lander will drill into the lunar surface with a robotic arm scooping out soil and rocks.

Still, the ultimate goal will be to launch a human mission.

Asked when Beijing was planning to put astronauts on the moon, Pei hedged his bets.

“I think future lunar exploration activities should be carried out by a combination of man and machine,” he said without mentioning a timeline.

In the United States, NASA has already started planning for a second lunar journey of discovery by 2024. More than 50 years ago Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon, climaxing a remarkable Apollo program. 

With more than half a billion people watching on television in 1969, he proclaimed: 

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

NASA wrote the original playbook for human spaceflight. But does it have the political will and the financial muscle to “pull it off” again?

Challenges ahead

“If the pieces come together in the right way they can [do it]. But they have to come together,” Ryan Watkins, a lunar scientist with the Planetary Science Institute, told Nature, a scientific journal.

Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator and space historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, stressed that the challenges ahead are formidable. 

“These types of programs are extremely expensive and rely on political will,” she said in a Nature interview.

For China, human spaceflight will be a steep learning curve. The aim has always been to plot a technological trajectory that will finally take astronauts to the lunar surface in the next decade.

A permanent moon base is then envisaged as a springboard to broader space exploration and a mission to Mars. The plan mirrors NASA’s big picture program.

“A new wave of lunar exploration has been emerging in the world, with participants aiming to make sustainable missions to deepen knowledge of the moon and exploit resources there,” Zhou Yanfei, the deputy chief designer of China’s manned space program, said earlier this year.

“Unlike other nations, China must depend on its own science and technology to realize our goals,” he added at the 2020 China Space Conference in Fujian province.