China is basking in the success of its moon landing. The achievement deserves respect, given that only the US and Russia have been able to attain the lofty goal since 1959. However, putting China’s accomplishment in the same league as those of its forerunners would be misplaced praise. Credit should be given where it is due and the record should be set straight.
Solid-state transistors were invented in 1948 and small-scale integrated circuits followed in 1952. The inventions, and countless others of those times — conceived in Bell Labs and the Fairchild Semiconductors Laboratory and their numerous spin-offs — set in motion the microelectronics revolution, which has lasted till today.
Even with such advantage, one should recognize that it was an extremely risky proposition when then-US president John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to send men to the moon before 1970, considering that in 1961 the IBM 1620 mainframe computer had less computing power than a desktop PC of the 1980s.
A rigid-body vehicle in a high-speed space flight requires precise trajectory management and altitude control. Many special sensors, signal processors and actuators are required to accomplish these two tasks.
For landing on the moon, two operations, among many, are deemed the most critical: lunar transfer orbit insertion and descent to the lunar surface.
The insertion operation moves a satellite from a linear trajectory onto an orbit around the moon. It requires a precise control of altitude, thruster ignition timing and burn duration. Once in a circular orbit and stabilized, the landing vehicle must be reoriented with further thruster burns so that the landing gear is facing toward the target surface. Once committed to the descent phase all sensors must work almost in perfect unison to enable a controlled deceleration and a soft landing.
In the 1960s, the sensors required for such missions were not readily available even to the US space agency. What was available were primitive designs requiring improvements and resources. On many occasions, new designs were started from scratch as they were needed.
In essence, US unmanned lunar missions in the 1960s, manned Apollo projects in the 1970s, and space shuttles and the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1980s can all be claimed as homemade. They were completely original without either existing support or any intellectual thievery.
Now fast forward to China’s Chang’e project, which began in the early 2000s. By this time, high-performance sensors providing measurements in digital format were easily procured on the commercial market.
High-speed microcomputers running at several gigahertz and fitting in a box the size of a notebook could be bought for less than a few thousand US dollars in public stores. Many other sophisticated components of all sort could be acquired online.
In all, China’s success in space is built on backbreaking work and sweat that it did not contribute to at all.
This is not to diminish the impressive strides China has made in many respect since its reforms that started in the late 1970s. Depending on how it is presented, the event’s significance may have many faces.
Gloating over the lunar landing aside, China is still facing an unpleasant question: How many moon trips will it take to erase the image of hundreds of Chinese babies sickened by milk laced with toxin?