The US may feel compelled to match China’s ambitions after it lands a rover on the far side of the moon, but it would be folly, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
For all that we may grasp at a renewed sense of purpose and optimism at the changing of the calendar, the news cycle of the first week of a maiden year is usually enough to beat such hankerings out of us.
Hikes to rail fares, increased hospital waiting times, and the prospect of a meaningful Commons vote on Brexit that now has as much meaning as the Greatest Moment category in the British Soap Awards have all conspired to lay the January funk on thick in 2019.
Amongst it all, however, China’s successful moon landing offered a rare moment of respite. A breakthrough for mankind was announced with the customary photographs of the moon’s surface resembling an underproofed morning roll, accompanied by a flurry of statistics and facts rendered impressive by their impenetrability.
Its greatest legacy, however, was skittishly paranoid headlines such as, “What does China want with the moon?”, a question akin to suspecting your dog of harbouring ambitions to become director-general of the BBC whenever it seizes the remote between its jaws.
Such talk was, in fairness, to be expected, given China’s relations with the US. The very notion of a space race feels like a relic from the 1960s, when diametrically opposed superpowers viewed the vast, black canopy overhanging Earth as a frontier to be conquered.
The first decade of space exploration represented an opportunity for the US and the Soviet Union to showcase scientific, engineering, and military prowess, yet the motive was always brazen: gaining a foothold in an uncharted expanse allowed them to strike a psychological blow against one another.
It is easy to forget – more than 60 years on from the launch of Sputnik and nearly as long since Yuri Gagarin, the son of a bricklayer and a milkmaid, became the first man to orbit the Earth – how the early advances of the Soviet Union’s space programme cast a long shadow over the US psyche.
Only eight days after Gagarin’s return to terra firma, a despairing JFK sent a memo to his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, demanding miracles. “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?” he asked. “Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”
The president had answered his own question, although it took eight years and an injection of more than £130 billion for him to realise it, salving a nation’s wounded pride and assuring US pre-eminence in the incipient space race along the way.
It was, in truth, a short-lived victory. The advent of the Apollo–Soyuz test project, the most high profile manifestation of détente, paved the way for future co-operation between the two nations.
That led to extraordinary technological breakthroughs, but it also dampened the public’s enthusiasm for space missions. An uncomplicated narrative with clearly defined winners and losers was replaced with something more enriching, if less dramatic.
And yet, decades later, the leaps and bounds being made by Beijing may herald a return to the days when space served as an arena for superpowers to compete.
The landing of the Chinese probe at the South Pole-Aitken basin, the oldest and deepest crater on the planet, is not astounding in isolation. Other nations had the means to do so years, if not decades, previously.
But the breakthrough came just 16 years after China sent its first astronaut into space. In a year’s time, it expects to complete the rollout of its BeiDou satellite system, a competitor to the global positioning system which plays an integral role in our day-to-day lives. In time, it plans to site astronauts in a lunar base.
In all of this, China, is blazing its own trail, intent on humbling the US, Russia, and the rest of Europe with its unilateral ambitions.
It will take time to determine the fallout from all this, but one this seems clear: it will not sit easily with the current incumbent of the White House. President Donald Trump’s approach to business and politics is uncompromisingly black and white. Even the threat that he might be perceived as weak in the face of Xi Jinping’s enterprise will likely prove a sufficient force to jolt him into action.
The Trump administration, lest we forget, has already signalled its intention to create the US Space Force, a £10bn plan to militarise outer space, overseen by a four-star general.
In the event that any invading alien forces rebuff Mr Trump’s attempts to make them pay for a roof around the Earth’s exosphere, this might seem like prudent planning. Should no such scenario come to pass, however, the idea barely deserves its place in a Michael Bay movie, let alone the US Congress. But the global publicity surrounding China’s space push all but guarantees Mr Trump already has the crayons out, designing the uniforms.
This reboot of the winners and losers narrative is in no one’s interests. It has been clear for some years now that the real race to the stars is being waged by commercial interests, such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, with governments and space agencies mere facilitators or, at best, partners along for the ride. China’s success may change all that. After all, wouldn’t it be something to beat the People’s Republic to build the first luxury golf resort overlooking the Sea of Tranquillity?