China was set to soon become the first nation to conduct a soft landing on the “dark” side of the moon, a feat that would represent a major leap in the country’s campaign to become a great power in space.
The China National Space Administration said Sunday that the Chang’e-4 probe entered an elliptical lunar orbit in preparation for what would be the first mission of its kind to explore the part of the moon that never faces Earth. The landing was scheduled to take place sometime early next month and possibly within days; the space agency’s statement said the exact timing was still to be determined.
If successful, the feat would be significant not only for its novelty but because it would come at a time of heightened tensions with the United States, the traditional leader in space technology. China and the United States are locked in a trade war over differences in economic policy and have challenged each other over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Outer space could very well be the next arena in which the international rivalry plays out.
Space exploration has recently been an area of cooperation between nations, even longtime rivals the U.S. and Russia, but it was one of the most contentious contests of the Cold War. The so-called Space Race that played out in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s saw the two superpowers gunning for extraterrestrial supremacy. Both managed to claim significant victories that would forever shape the science of space travel: Moscow’s first-ever satellite in 1957, and Washington’s debut manned lunar landing in 1969.
At the time, China was largely underdeveloped and lacked the technology to field such costly and scientifically demanding missions. Beijing’s investment was limited to intercontinental ballistic missile technology early on in response to tensions with the U.S. as well as the fellow communist leadership of the neighboring Soviet Union. In 1978, however, Chinese President Deng Xiaoping began to reform the rigid policies of his predecessor, Mao Zedong, and opened up the country in a move that would allow China to eventually become one of the world’s leading economic powers, rivaled only by the U.S. itself.
Along with this global rise came investment in space travel. Beijing launched its first crewed mission came in 2003, with the Shenzhou 5 making China only the third country in the world to have independently sent people into space. Now, as China celebrates 40 years since Deng’s transformation, the Chang’e-4 could deliver what space programs with decades more experience could not. Adding to this, China and Russia have begun talks aimed at pooling their skills for even more ambitious projects.
China’s prominence on the world stage has not been without its critics, and the U.S. has consistently voiced caution as it perceived a challenge to its own worldwide interests. This has become apparent in the South China Sea, where the Pentagon has sent naval patrols to check Beijing’s vast territorial claims that overlap with rival claims made by other regional states.
Since coming to office, President Donald Trump has focused on accusations of China’s unfair trade practices, alleging currency manipulation and the forced sharing of intellectual property. The Republican leader has designated U.S. job security a national security concern, and in May instituted steel and aluminum tariffs that were said to be designed to protect local industries. What resulted was a tit-for-tat bout of penalties that cost both countries about $6 billion this past year.
Economic warfare has done little to pacify U.S-China geopolitical tensions, which have taken on a military element in outer space as well. In 2007, China destroyed a satellite with a ballistic missile, the first such known intercept since the U.S. conducted a similar operation in 1985. The move prompted U.S. anxieties of Chinese anti-satellite weapons that could be used in combat and the Trump administration has made a priority out of preparing the country for a fight beyond the boundaries of the planet.
The White House instructed the Pentagon earlier this month to form a space command, the latest step toward Trump’s proposal of establishing a space force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military. Describing the plan in August, Vice President Mike Pence said “we must have American dominance in space, and so we will.”