China’s space mission a Long March to superpower status

Mission expected to launch nation into superpower league and pave way for a Chinese permanent space station

by Mark McCord and AFP
China’s space mission a Long March to superpower status
A Long March 5 rocket carrying China's Chang'e-5 lunar probe launches from the Wenchang Space Center on China's southern Hainan Island on November 24, 2020, on a mission to bring back lunar rocks, the first attempt by any nation to retrieve samples from the moon in four decades. Photo: AFP

China launched the first Moon surface-return mission Monday, one that will not only see it bring back a huge lump of lunar rock but also cement China as a space-race superpower.

The Chang'e 5 probe took off from the Wenchang Space Launch Center, Wenchang, on Hainan island province. It was loaded on top of a Long-March launch vehicle. The mission underlines just how far the country has come in achieving its "space dream".

Beijing has poured billions into its military-run space programme, with hopes of having a crewed space station by 2022 and of eventually sending humans to the Moon.

China 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 space programme as a marker of its rising global stature and growing technological might.

Here is a look at China's space programme through the decades, and where it is headed:

Mao's vow

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

It took more than a decade, but in 1970, China's first satellite lifted into space on the back of a Long March rocket.

Human space flight took decades longer, with Yang Liwei becoming China's first astronaut to go into space 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 off 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 regularity. 

Space station and 'Jade Rabbit'

Following in the footsteps 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, gave a video class from inside the space module beamed back to children across the world's most populous country.

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.

The rover made a dramatic recovery, though, 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 kilometres (244 miles) above Earth, in what analysts 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.

'Space dream'

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

The new superpower is looking to finally catch up with the US and Russia 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 -- with the assembly of pieces in space expected to start this year and 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 powerful heavy-lift rocket, failed to launch on a mission to send communication satellites into orbit.

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

Another robot, the Chang'e-4, landed on the far side of the Moon in January 2019 – a historic first. 

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

China Space Moon Satellite Space Station