This essay, on the politics of the space race from Sputnik to Chang’e-4, was the main article in my Observer column this week. It was published in the Observer, 6 January 2019, under the headline ‘Power politics always drives space conquest. China’s coup is no different’.
Nasa had rejected it as too difficult and costly an undertaking. Last week, China declared ‘mission accomplished’ after landing a spacecraft, Chang’e-4, on the far side of the moon.
It was a remarkable endeavour. As the far side of the moon never faces the Earth, mission control cannot communicate directly with the spacecraft, but only via an orbiting satellite. The terrain is more broken and cratered than the near side, so landing a craft is that much more difficult. Even Nasa was impressed: ‘a first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment!’, its Administrator tweeted.
Yet mixed with admiration was trepidation. China, a latecomer to the space race, is now beginning to threaten the supremacy of America and Russia. Almost every report on Chang’e-4’s mission declared it a ‘propaganda coup’ for China. That it certainly is and one that Beijing will fully exploit. But then Russia and America have long played their space exploration programmes for propaganda purposes.
‘The Soviet Union has made this a test of the system,’ President John F Kennedy told a meeting on Nasa funding in 1962. ‘So that’s why we’re doing it… Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians.’
From the beginning, the space race was intimately bound up with the needs of the Cold War. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human craft to orbit the Earth. Four years later, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was, Nikita Khrushchev claimed, ‘the greatest triumph of the immortal Lenin’s ideas’.
Where Russians exulted, Americans despaired. The New York Times was terrified that ‘neutral nations may come to believe the wave of the future is Russian’. ‘Continued Soviet superiority in space might undermine US prestige,’ reported the National Security Council. As news filtered through of Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy sent a memo to Vice-president Lyndon B Johnson. ‘Is there any… space programme which promises dramatic results in which we could win?’ it plaintively asked.
The answer, the two men decided, was a manned moon landing. The following month, Kennedy demanded of Congress that it provided funds to enable ‘this nation [to] commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon’.
Eight years later, on 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to tread on the moon. Their journey may have been fuelled in part by Cold War desperation, but it was also an extraordinary triumph of knowledge and will, an act of the technological sublime.
Once America was satisfied that the Soviet Union had been put in its place, space exploration became politically less important. Manned moon missions ended in 1972. Nasa was normalised into a regular government technology programme.As America downgraded its space ambitions, Chinese aspirations took flight. In 1992, the Chinese government approved the Shenzhou manned spaceflight programme. Eleven years later, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut in space.
America barred China from participating in the International Space Station (ISS). In 2011, China launched the first of two prototypes of its own space station. It plans to launch the core module of a permanent space station, Tianhe, by 2020. The ISS is due to be retired by 2028; China may then have the only functioning orbiting station. By the end of that decade, Beijing aims to be the dominant force in space exploration. There will be many more ‘propaganda coups’.
Fears about Chinese ambitions have been heightened by the changing context of the space race. In the 1960s, America was willing to throw whatever resources were necessary to achieve its cold war goals. Today, Nasa is unsure of its purpose and America less committed to funding it. During the cold war, America feared the Soviet Union, but was determined to thwart Moscow’s aims. Today, American apprehension stems from the worry that China’s emergence as the dominant global force cannot be checked, nor Beijing’s brutal despotism challenged. As liberal democracy frays in the west and authoritarian capitalism becomes entrenched in the east, self-doubt shapes US attitudes to China.
Space exploration has long been fuelled by a mixture of humanistic dreams, technological leaps and tawdry politics. The Chang’e-4 mission is no different. How the space race will play out over the next decade, and what role China will adopt in global politics, remains uncertain. In the meantime, let us celebrate our new perspective of the dark side of the moon.
The image is of a Chinese poster celebrating the Chang’e-4 mission.