A first for China in space

Times Staff Writers

Half a century after the Soviet Union beat the United States to outer space, China blasted off its first lunar orbiter Wednesday, catapulting the Asian nation onto the front lines of a new space race aimed at giving it bragging rights as a rising world power.

The Chang’e 1 satellite, named after a mythical beauty who flew to the moon, lifted off under cloudy skies in south-central China’s Sichuan province aboard a Long March 3A rocket. It will spend a year circling and studying the lunar surface and laying the groundwork for the ultimate goal of making China the first Asian nation to put an astronaut on the moon.

The liftoff was broadcast live on state television, witnessed by government officials and about 2,000 space enthusiasts who paid about $100 each to see it on-site. The expensive technological spectacle was preceded by the evacuation of thousands of poor farmers in nearby villages who had to temporarily put away their plows and walk away from their pigs as a safety precaution in case of a mishap with the launch or with spooked farm animals.

Like holding the Olympics, the lunar mission is a symbolic opportunity for China to boost national pride in the one-party state.

“These things serve as a cohesive force for the whole nation,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. “Even if you don’t believe in communism, at least you will try to accept that it is the leadership of the Communist Party that has made China strong and able to compete with the other superpowers.”


Beijing aspires to put an astronaut on the moon within 10 to 15 years, putting it ahead of Japan, which launched an unmanned moon orbiter last month, and India, which hopes to do the same in April.

The Chinese launch of the Chang’e marks the first step of a quest to land a moon rover, probably in 2012, and another one about five years later, to bring back soil samples.

China says its intentions are peaceful, but its space ambitions startled the world in 2003 when it became the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to send an astronaut into space aboard its own rocket. Astronaut Yang Liwei’s one-day journey around Earth was followed two years later by a flight by two astronauts who spent five days in space.

Next year’s planned mission is expected to carry three Chinese astronauts, known as taikonauts, who could also attempt the country’s first spacewalk.

Astronauts aboard the Apollo 17 were the last Americans on the moon, in 1972.

“I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin reportedly said at a lecture in Washington two weeks ago marking the space agency’s 50th anniversary, still a year away.

On Wednesday, Griffin congratulated the Chinese and opened the door to future joint lunar research.

“We look forward, as they do, to the new information Chang’e will provide about our nearest neighbor in space and to cooperation with us in the future exploration of the moon,” he said.

“We welcome China as the newest space-faring nation engaged in the peaceful exploration of the solar system,” said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society.

Christopher Kraft, flight controller for Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the moon, said that placing a spacecraft in orbit around the moon is a significant achievement.

“It says they’ve got the capability of computing the orbital mechanics to get there” and achieve a stable orbit, he said by phone from Houston.

“But the step between sending an unmanned probe and a manned spacecraft is a big one. At least an order of magnitude, if not two orders.”

It’s also tremendously more expensive to keep humans alive on a journey to the moon and back. “It remains to be seen if they have the technological knowledge and stick-to-itiveness” to go the rest of the way, he said. “If and when they do that, I’ll tip my cap to them.”

Unlike America, Kraft said, China graduates huge numbers of engineers every year. China’s space program will provide an insight into how good they are, he added.

China had its eye on the sky back in the early 16th century, when a Ming dynasty official named Wan Hu made one of the world’s first attempts to reach outer space. His vehicle was a chair, attached to 47 rockets, and his wings were two hand-held kites. Needless to say, he didn’t make it, but a moon crater was named in his honor.

China’s Communist Party probably has a chance to make an even deeper impression in space. When the Chang’e orbits the moon, it will broadcast 30 patriotic Chinese songs, including “The East Is Red.”

Yang, the first taikonaut and a party member, told the official New China News Agency last week that once the country built its own space station, he and his fellow taikonauts could form the first branch of the party there.


Ni reported from Beijing and Johnson from Los Angeles.



Chang’e 1 facts

* The Chang’e 1 is expected to start its yearlong orbit of the moon Nov. 5 and beam back its first pictures in late November. It will take 3-D images of the surface and analyze the distribution of elements.

* The Chang’e project has so far cost $187 million. About 10,000 people have been involved in the mainly military-run project.

* Chang’e is a mythical Chinese goddess who was banished to Earth with her husband for offending a heavenly emperor. Stealing an elixir for eternal life, she flew to the moon only to regret abandoning her husband and end up sad and lonely.

Sources: Reuters news service, New China News Agency and China National Space Administration