An interesting article appears in the November 2013 edition of Aerospace America (AA), a trade magazine for space professionals. Famed space reporter Craig Covault discusses plans for the Chinese mission Chang’E 3 (scheduled for a December 1, 2013 launch). Chang’E 3 will soft-land on the Moon and deploy an unmanned roving vehicle designed to explore within a few kilometers of the landing site. We do not have a lot of detailed information about this mission, though it appears it will accomplish several goals for China’s space program. And thereby hangs a tale.
The AA article quotes several western observers, some by name, who give their perspectives on the Chang’E 3 mission. I found the quotes from an unidentified “lunar scientist” of particular interest – unidentified we are told because he/she is “not authorized to speak on the record about the Chinese space program.” This pretty much nails the person as a government employee, most probably working for NASA. This anonymous scientist dismisses the scientific significance of Chang’E 3 by claiming that the lander/rover is not expected to discover “much new on the Moon.”
I would point out that, at a minimum, the Chang’E 3 will visit a place where no one has ever been, so any measurement that it makes will be “something new.” Granted, it may not be revolutionary or even of much significance. But the “lunar scientist” doesn’t stop there. He/she further opines that the Chinese “are not going to find anything beyond what both US and Soviet scientists already knew 45 years ago, even before Apollo 11”— unnamed, unauthorized but eager to stipulate that because Chang’E spacecraft is configured with scientific instruments that are common on any planetary mission, it cannot possibly find anything new or interesting. Statements like this make me question whether this person is really a scientist.
During the Apollo missions, astronauts carried a set of geological tools designed to help them sample the soil and rocks of the Moon. In preparation for Apollo 12, the second landing on the Moon, the Geology Team submitted their list of tools to the engineers for approval before flight. One engineer noted that the team had requested a “hammer” to accompany the astronauts to the Moon. He wanted know “Why are we flying a hammer to the Moon? We already flew that experiment on Apollo 11!”
The Chang’E 3 spacecraft is landing on a mare site (ancient lava flows), Sinus Iridum, in the northwestern mid-latitudes of the near side. Scientists have only a vague notion of the composition of these lava flows; a chemical “ground truth” analysis will be obtained, one that will help to more precisely calibrate the remote sensing data for other sites. Any new surface exploration always contains the potential for an unexpected or serendipitous discovery.
I have described elsewhere the value of the arrival of the Chang’E 3 spacecraft to lunar atmosphere studies – the release of a large quantity of known spacecraft gases, at a pre-determined place and time, and their observation by the currently orbiting LADEE spacecraft, offers us an unprecedented opportunity to learn how a temporary lunar atmosphere forms, evolves and dissipates over time. But as the AA article discusses at length, the real significance of Chang’E 3 is not scientific.
Several observers have noted that the lander spacecraft is relatively large. The wet mass of the Chang’E 3 before landing on the Moon is about 3800 kg (8360 lbs); the wet mass of the Apollo Lunar Module Descent stage (the spacecraft equivalent to Chang’E 3) was 10,150 kg (22,375 lbs), more than two and a half times as big. Nonetheless, the Chang’E 3 lander can deliver a fairly large payload to the lunar surface, up to about 1700 kg (a bit more than 1.5 metric tons), a much greater capacity than necessary for the small rover (~120 kg) carried on this mission. The Chinese have announced their intention to send a robotic sample return mission to the Moon after Chang’E 3, a mission requiring a fairly massive Earth return spacecraft. It is reasonable to infer that this lander is designed to be configured for a variety of different lunar missions, only the first of which is delivering a small surface rover.
Andy Chaikin, noted space author, is quoted in the article saying that the Chinese “want to duplicate, with a look-alike on the Moon, what Spirit and Opportunity did on Mars.” Perhaps. But maybe the Chinese have more in mind for their ambitious space program. Perhaps they recognize that lunar/cislunar spaceflight has national strategic value. Maybe they understand their national space program in broader terms than one-ups, PR stunts and headline copy. Which brings me back to the rather incredible (but somewhat familiar) quotes from the unnamed (presumably NASA) “lunar scientist.” What has NASA’s line been in regard to Chinese lunar plans? “Good luck to you!” “We already have six American flags up there!” “We’ve been there before – Buzz has been there!” In other words, the space policy equivalent to “A hammer?? Hell, we’ve already flown that experiment!”
Buzz Aldrin, quoted by name, declares that, “nobody knows more about the Moon than we do!” Perhaps, but that’s not a particularly useful or inspiring observation if one does not plan to go there and put that knowledge to work. Buzz wants America to “lead” an international effort back to the Moon. But what does America bring to the table that the Chinese need? We can declare that we are the lunar “authorities” and “experts” all we want to, but the two American robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon (LRO and LADEE, a heritage from the former administration) are the last ones scheduled for flight. Buzz’s former colleague Gene Cernan rightly points out that currently, we have no “bargaining chips” for such cooperation.
Our retreat from the challenge of the Moon puzzles even Chinese observers. Wu Ji, director general of the China National Space Science Center, reportedly is “dismayed by recent changes.” “I don’t know if your listeners or people living in the U.S. understand these changes,” he recently told NPR foreign correspondent Anthony Kuhn, “But as I observe them from the outside, I feel that America is gradually contracting and closing itself off. It’s a very strange thing.”
There are good reasons to believe that the Chinese don’t particularly want our “help.” They already have the means, the will, and the strategic vision to establish their own presence in cislunar space – to serve their own (at present, dimly perceived) purposes. No doubt we will continue to misread Chinese intentions in space, as we have done so many times for so many other areas of policy over the years. If space has national geopolitical implications (and the past 50 years of history demonstrates that it does), our absence from the Moon is as just significant as Chinese interest in (and use of) it.