China’s latest trip to the moon is another milestone in the Asian powerhouse’s slow but steady ascent to the stars.
China became the third country to put a person into orbit 17 years ago and the first to land on the far side of the moon in 2019. Future ambitions include a permanent space station and putting people back on the moon more than 50 years after the U.S. did.
But even before the latest lunar mission lifted off before dawn Tuesday, a top program official maintained that China isn’t competing with anyone.
“China will set its development goals in the space industry based on its own considerations of science and engineering technology,” Pei Zhaoyu, deputy director of the Lunar Exploration and Space Engineering Center at the China National Space Administration, told reporters hours before the Chang’e 5 mission was launched.
“We do not place rivals [before us] when setting those goals,” Pei said.
Whether that is true or not is debatable. China has a national plan aimed at joining the United States, Europe and Japan in the top ranks of technology producers, and the space program has been a major component of that. It also is a source of national pride to lift the reputation of the ruling Communist Party.
What’s clear is that China’s cautious, incremental approach has racked up success after success since it first put a person in space in 2003, joining the former Soviet Union and the United States. That has been followed by more crewed missions, the launch of a space lab, the placing of a rover on the moon’s relatively unexplored far side and, this year, an operation to land on Mars.
The Chang’e 5 mission, if successful, would be the first time moon rocks and debris are brought to Earth since a 1976 Soviet mission. The four modules of the spacecraft blasted off atop a massive Long March-5Y rocket from the Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island.