For the first time since the Cold War, public interest is once again shifting toward space. But this time, it isn’t a looming competition between two super powers that’s caught our attention. A complex web of national efforts, corporate programs, and increasingly, military assets streak across the sky above our heads, pushing the boundaries of orbital norms and reaching further into the stars. But somehow, despite having the most powerful economy on the planet and securing a victory in the last Cold War’s space race, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the U.S. is once again trailing the pack in these new space endeavors.
A heavy reliance on private space enterprises like Elon Musk’s SpaceX may have provided the American space program with a little breathing room, but some have contended that it is precisely because the U.S. is counting on Musk and others to start ferrying astronauts into orbit that NASA has permitted their Space Launch System to languish in perpetual delays. The rocket, which is slated to be the most powerful ever flown (if it indeed ever does), has suffered from a break in political logic since its inception: with law makers both demanding historically high performance out of an entirely new rocket platform while simultaneously offering historically low funding to get the project finished. Even with a slight uptick in NASA’s budget this past year, the program is still far from the golden age of Apollo — when it last fielded a super-powerful rocket, the Saturn V.
But Americans have struggled to find reasons to get excited about NASA — they want to hear about groundbreaking missions and space wars, and the best NASA has been able to offer toward the former recently has been a lander aimed at Mars that, while scientifically important, offers the voting public only seismic readings of the Red Planet’s crust and a way to track dust storms in near-real time. When you’re competing with SpaceX throwing sports cars at Mars and Russia launching secret weapons into space, NASA’s multi-billion dollar Martian seismometer just isn’t quite engaging enough to steal the show.
China, whose space program is notably not divested from its military enterprises, has been making rapid gains in the realm of space exploration — though “exploration” may be the wrong word to describe it. Their China Lunar Exploration Project (CLEP) aims to land a rover on the dark side of the moon where it will relay communications via orbiter back to earth. That’s a great way to explore a largely untouched part of the moon — but it’s also an important step toward creating a manned presence on the orbital body. Communicating without line of sight would be integral for a lunar installation.
To manage communications, China launched their ‘Queqiao’ satellite in May, which found a parking space in one of the Earth-moon Lagrange points — which are sweet spots in the gravitational pulls of large space bodies where the force from each balances out. As a result, a satellite can stay stationary between the two bodies; making for an excellent communications hub when coupled with orbiting satellites around both the moon and earth.
China has not released an exact date that their lander will touch down, but they expect it to be sometime in January. Once there, it will be able to put at least one long-standing conspiracy theory to rest: this lander carries “lunar penetrating radar” aimed at mapping the moon’s structure and subsurface lava flows — which can put the internet’s “Hollow moon full of Nazis” conspiracy theory to bed once and for all.
There’s always a silver lining when it comes to space travel.