An Extraterrestrial Imperative: China's Space Program

Which nation recently landed a rover on the Moon to explore the surface, one year later returned a spacecraft from lunar orbit, and by 2018 will have returned a sample of lunar soil to Earth, and touched down on the lunar farside—a first ever for mankind?

While it has been 40 years since the U.S. pursued such accomplishments,1The 2004 revival of a mission to send man back to the Moon, and on to Mars, NASA’s Constellation Program was killed in 2010 by President Obama; an action earning him his first charge of impeachable crime. He has since set about dismantling what remains of our space program, piece by piece. China has made more rapid progress in leading mankind off of the Earth, into assuming our role as a species of the Solar system, than any nation in the recent period. Their devotion to breaking the bonds which tie man to Earth, beginning with the development of the Moon, is leading the cause of man today.

Space Travelers

Though beginning in earnest decades after the U.S. and Soviet/Russian achievements of the 1960s and ’70s, China’s space program—both manned and robotic—has rapidly caught up, and now stands poised to take mankind into the next stage of development off of our planet.

In the two decades since the Shenzhou (manned spaceflight) program began (1992), China has succeeded in putting the first Chinese citizen into space, performing an EVA (“spacewalk”), launching a proto-space station, performing multiple rendezvous and docking maneuvers, and having their 3-man Shenzhou 10 crew teach a physics class to 60 million Chinese students who participated from their classrooms on Earth.

Yang Waping, China's second female taikonaut, delivers a live physics lecture to Chinese students from the Tiangong-1 space station module.

All of this required the development of technologies, industries, teams of experts, and capabilities which didn’t exist in China before, including: intensive, years-long training of taikonauts (astronauts) and their support and medical teams; the development of a capable mission control center and procedures; design and construction of new or newly adapted rockets for carrying people; design of pressure suits (“space suits”) capable of withstanding the hostile space environment, and other important life-support systems; and the great human capital of the people who have figured out how to make China’s great successes possible.2While critics flippantly say that China has merely copied old Soviet technology, others with their eyes open, see that China has gone far beyond, improving upon old designs, and in many cases, emerging with entirely Chinese designs. While they have naturally learned from and built upon lessons of the U.S. and Soviet programs, they have now emerged as a full, contributing member of the space age.

  1. Shenzhou


    Manned space program is established under the name “Project 921”, to be renamed “Shenzhou” (Divine Vessel) in 1999.

  2. Shenzhou 5

    October 2003

    China becomes the third nation to put a man in space with the 14-orbit flight of Yang Liwei.

  3. Shenzhou 6

    October 2005

    A two-man crew spends 5 days in space.

  4. Shenzhou 7

    September 2008

    China’s first “space walk” (EVA) is performed during a three-man, 3-day mission.

  5. Tiangong-1

    September 2011

    The first phase of China’s proto-space station, “Tiangong” (Heavenly Palace) is launched. Tiangong-1 is primarily a target for rendezvous and docking, as well as a manned experimental lab.

  6. Shenzhou 8

    November 2011

    Unmanned mission performs a successful rendezvous and two dockings with Tiangong-1.

  7. Shenzhou 9

    June 2012

    The three-man crew, including China’s first female taikonaut, Liu Yang, become the first manned crew to dock with and enter Tiangong-1.

  8. Shenzhou 10

    June 2013

    The three-man crew docks with and enters Tiangong-1, carrying out a number of experiments. China’s second female taikonaut, Wang Yaping, teaches a physics class from the space station to 60 million Chinese students participating on Earth.

  9. Tiangong-2

    September 15, 2016

    Planned launch of the second and final phase of the proto-space station, which will test all of the remaining capabilities before China begins construction of their full size, long-stay space station.

  10. Shenzhou 11

    Fourth Quarter 2016 (4Q)

    Planned two-man crew, expected to dock with Tiangong-2 for a 30-day stay.

Journey to the Moon

Many years in the making, in 2004 the Chinese government approved the “Chinese Lunar Exploration Program” (CLEP), designed to complete three stages of activity at the Moon:

1. Orbit the Moon and map the lunar surface
2. Land robotics on the Moon
3. Return a lunar sample to Earth

Stage 1 was completed in 2007 and 2010 with the Chang’e 1 and 2 spacecraft, which flew to the Moon, entered lunar orbit, and made 3-D topographical and mineral mappings of the surface.3Chang’e 2 followed up by venturing out of lunar orbit to rendezvous with asteroid 4179 Toutatis, and is now in solar orbit, expected to pass close to the Earth again in 2020.

The success of Stage 2 captured the attention of the world in December 2013, when Chang’e 3 made the first soft landing on the lunar surface in nearly 40 years. The “Yutu” rover carried to the surface by Chang’e 3, capable of analyzing sampled rocks, and “seeing” 30m below the lunar surface with its radar “eyes”, has already told us of a new kind of basaltic rock, never encountered in any former lunar mission, and investigated the structure of the lunar crust several hundred meters down, among other discoveries.

By the early 2020s, with a fully-functioning, long-stay space station in orbit, and having accomplished its robotic lunar objectives, China will turn its sights to landing people on the Moon—a place which has been awaiting the return of human life since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

Stage 3, returning a lunar sample to Earth, is scheduled to be carried out in 2017 by Chang’e 5. In preparation, Chang’e 5-T1 was deployed on a journey around the Moon in December 2014, sending back spectacular pictures of the lunar far side, and returning to Earth for successful recovery. Now all capabilities needed for the sample return have been demonstrated, except for those that Chang’e 5 itself will try for the first time: automated sample collection, and liftoff from the lunar surface without a launchpad.

In 2018, Chang’e 44The numbers of the mission are out of order (5 before 4) because Chang’e 5 is part of the later stage, sample return, while Chang’e 4 is part of the earlier stage, landing. will make history by setting (robotic) foot on the far side of the Moon, a feat which will be a first for mankind, never even attempted by any nation. Since the lunar far side never faces Earth, direct communication between the two is impossible. Therefore, in preparation, a relay satellite will be launched and stationed behind the Moon, to be able to talk to both Chang’e 4 (and its rover), and the scientists eagerly watching and listening from Earth.

Mankind’s Common Future

The logo of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. The end of the brush stroke becomes a flock of doves, telling of China's peaceful intentions, and the two footprints make clear the next big goal.

By the early 2020s, with a fully-functioning, long-stay space station in orbit, and having accomplished its robotic lunar objectives, China will turn its sights to landing people on the Moon, which has been awaiting the return of human life since the 1972 Apollo 17 mission.

Though this policy has only recently been made official,5In April 2016, officials of the Chinese manned spaceflight program announced that China would land men on the Moon by 2036, following the expected 2030 development of their heavy-lift rocket, the Long March 9. all components of China’s ongoing work tell of this intention. Most telling, however, is China’s outlook for mankind’s future, clearly stated by “father” of the lunar program, Ouyang Ziyuan:

“After all of this work, which is that China can make the achievement of arriving at the Moon and safely landing and that we can bring samples back; and once we finish all these unmanned projects, we will send Man there.

“There are many ways humans can use the Moon… The Moon is full of resources—mainly rare earth elements, titanium, and uranium, which the Earth is really short of, and these resources can be used without limitation.

“The Moon is also so rich in helium-3, which is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion, that this could solve human beings' energy demand for around 10,000 years at least.

“There are so many potential developments—it's beautiful—so we hope we can fully utilize the Moon to support sustainable development for humans and society.”6Interview with BBC News, November 29, 2013.

The Moon is not a place to visit, and with a “been there, done that” attitude,7“Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned, but I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before.” —Barack Obama, Kennedy Space Center, April 2010. never to return; permanent lunar bases must be set up for purposes of scientific research, mining, manufacturing, and as frontier outposts for launching our investigations and further exploration of the rest of the solar system. This was the never-realized next step in the U.S. after the Apollo missions,8First man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, when asked in a 1970 interview with the BBC whether based on his knowledge it would be possible to set up lunar bases on a large scale, Armstrong replied enthusiastically: “Oh, I'm quite certain we'll have such bases in our lifetime. Somewhat like the antarctic stations, and similar scientific outposts, continually manned. Although, certainly there's the problem of the environment, the vacuum, and the high and low temperatures of day and night, still in all, in many ways it's more hospitable than Antarctica might be. There are no storms, no snow, no high winds, no unpredictable weather phenomena that we're yet aware of. And the gravity is a very pleasant kind of place to work in—better than here on Earth—and I think it would be quite a pleasant place to do scientific work, and quite practical.” and it is China’s clear commitment today.

It is urgent that all nations bring the best of their talents to a world-wide collaboration toward this great, common mission for mankind.

Chang'e 1 entered lunar orbit in November 2007, and made a high-definition mapping of the lunar surface.
A false-color topography map, created with the data obtained from Chang'e 1.
Chang'e 1 orbited 200 km above the lunar surface and created a high-definition 3-D mapping.
Chang'e 2, launched in October 2010, flew within 100 km of the lunar surface, and was able to observe features in much greater detail than Chang'e 1. Here is the Helmholtz crater, photographed by Chang'e 2.
The Earth-Moon “Lagrange” or libration points. These are points in the orbital configuration of two bodies at which an object can maintain a stable position relative to the two bodies. The “L2” point directly behind the Moon can provide a “station” for a communications satellite relaying messages between the Earth and activities on the lunar far side.
After completing its mission at the Moon, Chang'e 2 became the first spacecraft to fly to the Earth-Moon L2 directly from lunar orbit. It then ventured off into deep space to rendezvous with asteroid 4179 Toutatis, sending back beautiful close-up photos, and is now in solar orbit, expected to pass close to Earth again in 2020.
On December 14, 2013, Chang'e 3 became the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon since 1976!
The Chang'e 3 lander, photographed by the “Yutu” lunar rover, shortly after the two separated.
The Yutu lunar rover sets off on its journey to investigate the Moon.
Chang'e 5-T1, launched in October 23, 2014, took this photograph of the Earth and Moon as it set out on its voyage to lunar orbit, and back. The return capsule “Xiaofei” re-entered Earth's atmosphere and was recovered on October 31, becoming the first object returned to Earth from lunar orbit in almost 40 years. This was the final step in preparation for the 2017 Chang'e 5 lunar sample return.
This stunning picture of the far side of the Moon and the Earth was taken by Chang'e 5-T1 as it turned to begin its journey home.


By William Jones & Marsha FreemanA brief background to China's announcement of plans for a 2018 landing on the lunar far side with its Chang'e 4 mission.

A 2010 Discovery Channel/CICC documentary which gives a unique glimpse inside China's growing manned space program.