China's ambitious Long March to the moon

City talk | AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE 25 Nov 2020

China's launch of an unmanned spacecraft aimed at bringing back lunar rocks - the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from the moon in four decades - underlines just how far the country has come in achieving its "space dream."

Beijing has massively funded its military-run space program, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and eventually sending people to the moon.

The country has come a long way in its race to catch up with the United States and Russia, whose astronauts and cosmonauts have had decades of experience in space exploration.

Beijing sees its military-run program as a marker of its rising global stature and growing technological might. But the space program has been in being for decades.

Soon after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced "we too will make satellites."

That took until 1970, when China's first satellite lifted into space on the back of a Long March rocket.

Human space flight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei as China's first astronaut in 2003.

As the launch approached, concerns over the viability of the mission caused Beijing to cancel a nationwide live television broadcast at the last minute.

Despite the fears, the launch went smoothly, with Yang orbiting the Earth 14 times during his 21-hour flight aboard the Shenzhou 5.

Since then China has sent men and women into space with increasing frequency.

And following in the vapor trails of the United States and Russia, China is striving to open a space station circling our planet.

The Tiangong-1 was shot into orbit in September 2011.

In 2013, the second Chinese woman in space, Wang Yaping, presented a class from inside the space module, beamed back to children across the nation.

The lab was also used for medical experiments and, most importantly, tests intended to prepare for the building of a space station.

The lab was followed by the Jade Rabbit lunar rover in 2013, which looked at first like a dud when it turned dormant and stopped sending signals back to Earth.

But the rover made a dramatic recovery, ultimately surveying the moon's surface for 31 months - well beyond its expected lifespan.

In 2016, China launched its second station, the Tiangong-2 lab, into orbit 393 kilometers above Earth in what experts say will likely serve as a final building block before China launches a manned space station.

Astronauts who have visited the station have run experiments on growing rice and other plants as well as docking spacecraft.

Under President Xi Jinping, plans for what he calls China's "space dream" have been put into overdrive.

The latest superpower is looking to finally catch up with the Americans and Russians after years of belatedly matching their space milestones.

The ambitions start with a space station of its own. China was deliberately left out of the International Space Station effort, but the nation's assembly of pieces in space is expected to start this year and for manned use to begin around 2022.

China is also planning to build a base on the moon, with Zhang Kejian, head of the country's National Space Administration, saying last year that the country aimed to establish a lunar mission by 2029.

But lunar work was dealt a setback in 2017 when the Long March-5 Y2, a heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit.

The failure forced the postponement of the Chang'e-5 launch, which was originally scheduled to collect samples from the moon in 2017.

But another robot-starring mission landed with the Chang'e-4 on the far side of the moon in January last year - a first.

China's astronauts and scientists have also talked up manned missions to Mars as Beijing strives to become a global space power.

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