On Feb. 3, 1966, the Soviet Luna 9 probe became the first spacecraft to land on the lunar surface. Four months later, the U.S. followed with Surveyor I. The American manned mission and landing on the moon came three years later. Yet curiously, no other country has ever managed or tried what the U.S. and Soviet Union accomplished 47 years ago.
On Saturday evening, Beijing time, the lunar duopoly probably will end. Jade Rabbit, the first Chinese lunar rover, is scheduled to land on and snap a photo of the lunar surface. Of course, nothing is guaranteed when making a lunar landing (the failures are numerous), but with a little luck, China will wake up Sunday morning as the third member of the lunar-exploration club.
It’s a notable accomplishment that few in the global space community would have predicted back when the Soviets and the Americans were competing to be first to the moon. In 1966, after all, China was in the early throes of the Cultural Revolution, which persecuted intellectuals, destroyed the universities and trashed what was left of the economy -- three essential components to building and sustaining a space program.
Nonetheless, China’s critics have been quick to sniff at this accomplishment. “China is busy re-living the past for much the same reasons that America and the Soviet Union lived it the first time round,” the Economist wrote earlier this week. “The future lies elsewhere.” A private space industry, the magazine suggests, is the real future, and it may be right. But that private space industry is being built in the U.S. and the European Union -- places where space exploration has been practiced at a high level for decades. Yet even the Economist must recognize that the U.S. private space industry takes advantage of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other government infrastructure and personnel to succeed.
In any event, a space program, as any engineer can attest, is always about the future. To be sure, China views that future as one in which its international standing has been enhanced by space exploration (perhaps at the expense of a declining U.S. space program). Yet China also views its space program -- much like NASA and other government space agencies -- as an incubator for technology that finds its way into the private sector and the lives of regular citizens. On Friday, the state-owned English-language China Daily made precisely this point:
“Routine innovations are far from enough to propel technology in this age. Programs that involve advanced technology are needed to revolutionize the system. And the moon probe is a typical example of such a program.”
Of course, some of those spin-off technologies will be military in nature (just as they were for the U.S.) and not especially to the liking of most Americans or their military. Likewise, there’s ample evidence that China’s space program may in part be built from stolen U.S. technology. Those are both legitimate areas of concern. But they shouldn’t blind Americans or anyone else to the simple fact that, sooner or later, China and the rest of the developing world will soon reach for the stars, too. Even as China begins to rove the moon, India is steering a Martian probe through deep space, en route to the developing world’s first encounter with a planet that was previously only visited by Americans and Soviets. Like their Chinese lunar counterparts, Indians should be welcomed as equals and even collaborators in a human quest that will, over the generations, blur borders and nationalities.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.)