At 6.05pm on 24 October 2007, the first lunar probe, Chang’e 1 (named after a mythological goddess who was supposed to have flown to the moon) blasted off on the latest stage of China’s long journey into peaceful space exploration. After the carrier rockets had taken it into space, the power for the craft is supplied by solar energy through a panel that opened once outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The history of China’s space programme goes back to 1956 when it established the No 5 Research Institute attached to the Ministry of National Defence. The first successful launch of a Chinese satellite, Dongfanghong 1, took place on 24 April 1970, while the manned programme was started in 1992 with the rigorous training of taikonauts (the Chinese equivalent of an astronaut or cosmonaut).
In November 1999, China launched its first unmanned prototype spacecraft, followed by another three between January 2001 and March 2002. In October 2003, the Shenzhou V manned spacecraft was launched and recovered the next day, making China the third country in the world to send a man into space using its own rocket. Most recently, 12-17 October 2005 saw the Shenzhou VI rocket complete a five-day mission with two taikonauts aboard.
With the launch of this important lunar probe, the scene is now set for the Chinese to put a man on the moon, which could happen, according to some sources, within twenty years, which is sooner than the Americans calculate that they will be able to get back there.
The Chinese space programme is not about who can do what first, though. The Chinese have repeatedly denied any interest in entering into a space race with any nation. Indeed, they watched a Japanese lunar probe take off a month before theirs without bringing forward the date of their own launch, although it would have been perfectly possible. China has also repeatedly and vigorously called for space to be kept free of weapons, a call that falls on deaf ears in the imperialist countries.
China has also said that it is willing to share with the world the achievements of its lunar exploration. Contrast this position with that of the USA, which will not only not share its findings, but which has also constantly blocked China’s attempts to take part in the international space station. Professor Sun Jiwen, rocket expert and a senior People’s Liberation Army space security advisor, has said that “not one country could afford the risk, time and cost of conducting lunar research in isolation”. Stressing his belief that multinational cooperation on lunar research was inevitable, Professor Sun pointed out that that was why China had established and deepened aeronautical ties with Russia, Europe and others. (In 2009, Russia will send a Chinese satellite to Mars.)
Speaking for the Washington-based World Security Institute, Eric Hagt, director of a department concerned with China, said that China is “spawning greater impetus for the US’s own space programme and is doing so within the framework of China as a ‘threat’, as a ‘competitor’, as a ‘challenger’”. He went on to say that “China’s space programme remains steeped in a highly secretive culture, very much ensconced in military institutes, organisations and services. China’s military space ambitions are almost completely unknowable.”
Not only is that description far more apt when applied to the US, it completely ignores China’s willingness to work with others and to share its knowledge. Hagt ignores the fact that this latest launch was broadcast live on TV and that China’s tourist industry had been using the forthcoming launch as a selling point to get visitors into the country. It also ignores the fact that China has been campaigning very hard to keep weapons out of space.
Those who try to discredit China on this last point often try to use the missile test that China was reported as having carried out to destroy an old satellite (a test the US carried out in the 80s), but a good pointer towards the space policy of China as ultimately peaceful while being realistic about the world situation, are the words of Teng Jianqun, director of the Research Department of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association: “The Chinese leadership learned a lesson from the Soviet Union and will never fall into the trap of an arms race in space with the US, but we also learned the US is a nation which respects the strong and oppresses the weak … therefore China must develop its own space science and technology.”
That China is serious about further developing its space programme is highlighted by its intention to develop new carrier rockets. The present Long March 3a carrier rockets are due to be replaced by new Long March 5 carriers, which will be capable of lifting 25 tons, giving China the same launch capabilities as other nations with a developed space programme.
The development of China’s space programme alongside its continuing work to eradicate poverty in China and the development of genuine fair trade with third-world countries, releasing the latter from the grip of imperialist parasitism, are good portents for the future of mankind, and as such must earn the respect and support of all anti-imperialists.