China this week became the third nation to land a rover on the Moon, and experts believe the country will follow up with a manned mission to the lunar surface in just a matter of years. The country’s rapidly improving program and America’s perceived lack of direction could, years from now, lead to a new space race.
The spacecraft Chang’e 3 and its rover, Yutu, are only on the lunar surface to explore. But China’s zeal for space is unmatched, and its program is developing fast — to the point that it can be recognized as a space power. Just what that means for the U.S. is up for debate.
“I’m not saying they’re militarizing space, or occupying it or [that] they’re going to claim the moon … but there’s always that consideration in that relationship between countries,” Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, told Mashable.
For Spudis, the issue is not China’s presence in the lunar region, but the United States’ absence. He’s worried a country that doesn’t advocate for a free market could some day stifle how other nations and private businesses operate in space.
“I don’t think it’s anything to panic about,” Spudis said. “It’s something to think about seriously.”
John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Mashable that if China wants to play with the big powers on Earth, they bhad etter play with them in space, too. That means, at some point, a manned trip to the Moon.
China has launched several military satellites, which have also caused consternation among some U.S. officials. But Logsdon thinks China’s program has caused undue alarm. What the Chinese have done is impressive, sure, but they’re a long way from their own mission toMars.
“People have very short attention spans,” Logsdon said. “A year and a half ago we landed a remarkable rover on Mars, and it’s producing all kinds of discoveries.”
Pascal Lee, planetary scientist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, toldMashable he wouldn’t disagree that America’s program is superior. But he feels China’s recent success needs to renew American interest in the space program because Beijing’s progress has been steady for years, and their missions have so far been almost flawless.
What’s more, China seems to have its eyes on tougher missions in the near future. Chang’e 3 is big enough to hold much more than the rover it deposited, meaning the Chinese could have fit a larger, more capable robot in there. With a few more upgrades, they might be able to squeeze in a person or two.
“The truth is these events are really remarkable and they need to get our attention,” Lee said. “As soon as we see a Chinese astronaut walking on the Moon, I think it’s going to become a national interest of the U.S. to get back to the Moon.”
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