In a darkened auditorium about 250 young Chinese sat spellbound in a projector’s otherworldly blue glow, listening to the father of China’s lunar program chart their country’s once and future voyages in the final frontier.
While the US retreats from manned space exploration, China is seeking to establish itself as an ascending superpower, in the same way that the US and Soviet Union did when they alone dominated global politics.
Colorful maps of interplanetary flight paths and photos of the moon’s craggy surface taken by China’s two previous rover missions, Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2, illuminated the screen in Beijing.
Then pictures of China’s latest rover, which made its soft-landing last Saturday, and finally, another image, this time a mock-up: an astronaut standing on the moon, proudly planting a red Chinese flag in the lunar soil.
“We will send a Chinese astronaut to the moon,” Ouyang Ziyuan (歐陽自遠) told the rapt audience at the event, organized by China’s popular science Web site Guokr.
“The Communist Party Central Committee strongly encourages us to go even beyond the moon and China is already capable of deep space exploration,” the 78-year-old former chief scientist of the lunar program said. “We will explore the whole solar system.”
Ouyang’s impassioned presentation, and the pride and wonderment with which the 20-something crowd greeted it, underscored the significance of the program.
For many in China, while their country’s steady progress into space is a technical achievement, it also signifies something much greater. China’s boom of the past 30 years has made it the world’s second-largest economy and it is increasingly seeking geopolitical heft of a similar stature.
The military-run space program fits into that effort, specialists say.
“For China, it represents two things,” said Maurizio Falanga, executive director of the International Space Science Institute Beijing and one of a growing number of Western space scientists seeking to strengthen collaboration with China. “One, they’re able to do it by themselves; they have the technology and they know how to do it. It’s also to be proud of the nation, to be proud to be Chinese, that ‘we are on the same level with the US now, or the Russians... and start to become a world power.’”
China first sent a human into space 10 years ago and its ambitious future plans include a permanent orbiting space station to be completed by 2020.
At about the same time, the International Space Station operated by the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe is due to go out of service.
The US has retired its remaining space shuttles without a replacement and scaled back NASA funding. Its activities have proceeded only “in fits and starts,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“They’re [China] trying to set up a program that’s long-duration, as opposed to the United States where we went to the moon, we did it very quickly, we said: ‘Been there, done that,’” Johnson-Freese said.
Ken Pounds, a professor emeritus at the University of Leicester who has spearheaded British space research, said China’s progress in space represented an “absolute transformation” in its stature over the past 40 years.
“When I was young, the US program dominated everything, and we in the UK and in Europe tended to look at collaboration with the Americans as the first way to go,” Pounds said. “I think the situation is now different. I don’t think there’s any particular preference on who to work with, and in fact there are very significant collaborations with China.”