China, America and the Moon: Boldness and Abdication

The Chang'E 3 lunar lander is almost half as big as the Apollo LM.  A precursor to a human spacecraft?

The Chang’E 3 lunar lander is almost half as big as the Apollo LM. A precursor to a human spacecraft?

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.

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32 Responses to China, America and the Moon: Boldness and Abdication

  1. William Mellberg says:

    Dr. Spudis has written an excellent analysis of the “party line” at NASA under the Obama Administration with respect to exploring the Moon: “Been there, done that.” The Apollo 12 hammer analogy is perfect. One might also make a terrestrial comparison.

    Let us pretend that we are space aliens studying Earth. And let us assume that we have landed in Mojave (California), Wall (South Dakota), Williston (North Dakota), Pahrump (Nevada), Branson (Missouri) and Silver City (New Mexico). That pretty much covers all of the planet, right? There would be absolutely no need to visit any other sites such as the Hawaiian Islands, the Amazon jungles, the Swiss Alps, the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls, the Himalayas, Australia, or the poles — not to mention the vast oceans which cover so much of Earth. Right? What could we possibly learn by exploring anything other than six limited sites in less than fourteen total days?

    I agree with Dr. Spudis. The unnamed “scientist” in Craig Covault’s interesting article does not seem to have much interest in science. He/she pooh poohs the Chinese lunar lander/rover. “Been there, done that.” Oh, really? Then why send any more spacecraft to Mars? Why did we send Curiosity to the Red Planet when three other rovers had already explored the martian surface, along with three other fixed landers? Been there, done that. Right?


    Dr. Spudis is correct. The Chinese rover will be exploring new territory on the Moon, although the Soviet Luna-17 spacecraft delivered the Lunokhod-1 rover to another part of Mare Imbrium forty-three years ago. But so what? China is developing its own independent capability to send spacecraft to the lunar surface. I would be at all surprised if Chang’E 3 (assuming it is successful) is followed by a mission to one of the lunar poles in the not too distant future. We have NOT been there. Nor have we done that. But thanks to previous American lunar missions, the Chinese are well aware of the resources (such as water ice) that can be found at the Moon’s poles.

    How frustrating it must be for Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt — the last men on the Moon — to realize that Chinese taikonauts, not American astronauts, will likely be picking up where they left off. Having created the first transportation system to carry humans from one world to another, the United States abandoned that capability and said “goodbye” to the Moon. As Neil Armstrong pointed out a few years ago, it’s as if Christopher Columbus had made his four voyages to the New World and the Spanish government had never returned. “Been there, amigos. Done that.”

    Given the investment the Chinese appear to be making in lunar exploration, I don’t think they plan to plant their flag, leave a few footprints in the lunar regolith and come home. My guess is that China is going to the Moon to stay. And if they do, China will be the undisputed world leader in space resource development. The Chinese will be the “experts” then.

    • Chris Castro says:

      Excellent observations!! I have noticed this about the unmanned space-probe enthusiasts, for years—–that they never cease in their quest to send new robotic space-crafts to the planets & planetoids, on basically ‘REPEAT-but-incrementally-better & incrementally-more-extensive’ missions. Just how many times has NASA sent in rover-vehicles to investigate Mars? Consider that after the Pioneer & Voyager crafts did fly-bys of both Jupiter & Saturn, two times each, that further orbiter-craft were later sent to each giant world: the Galileo & the Cassini missions—–with increasingly more ambitious discovery objectives, than what came before. If unmanned space-craft missions yield so high a bounty of scientific findings, per each individual planet-reach, then imagine just how many tales-of-the-unexpected would await a more technologically advanced second round of manned Moon expeditions——both in the preliminary sorties & in the subsequent outpost-phase visits? The current presidential administration is lead by huge, wholesale IGNORANCE, over how exploration & scientific investigation has always been done, throughout the Earth’s long history! And again, our best hopes for a 21st-century round of American crewed Lunar missions, lays with a solid change in presidential leadership, plus some definite, concrete foreign competition in the Lunar arena. I look forward with zeal to the day that Chinese spacemen make the full journey Moonward, & build upon the grand legacy of acheivement, that the Apollo expeditions did——-now, more than four full decades ago!

  2. Ronald Wells says:

    Mellberg says: “My guess is that China is going to the Moon to stay. And if they do, China will be the undisputed world leader in space resource development. The Chinese will be the “experts” then.”

    The Chinese have a proven history of long term planning. In this specific case of great interest to me is that they have accumulated a lot of global mapping of the distribution of Helium-3 (He-3), that “been there, done that” stuff which guarantees the owner of returned quantities not only “world leader in space resource development” but also a world power in energy, independent of the remainder of the world. True, much of the data in their He-3 maps has come from American observations (made prior to the current Administration in Washington), but they have made their own contributions to the maps from ground based telescopic observations. Landing in Sinus Iridum may, or may not, provide a “ground” truth in He-3 content of the site (such as a calibration of the quantities there), but the Chinese have little interest in bargaining for something that they are building the capability to take whenever they want. How does one bargain against that?

  3. Mark R. Whittington says:

    It is interesting that Paul suggests that in order to “lead” or even participate in an international return to the moon, we need to show our seriousness in a little more concrete manner than has been the case for the past five years. Testing a Morpheus or Mighty Eagle derived vehicle with an appropriate instrument package/payload for a landing at — say — the lunar south pole would do for a start.

  4. Scientist in China have already publicly stated that they see economic value in the Moon. The fact that the executive branch of the US government doesn’t see similar economic value probably surprises China’s ruling oligarchy. But the Communist Party in China is not going to complain about America not investing in its scientific and economic future on the Moon and in the rest of the solar system. In fact, it is in the interest of China’s Communist Party to see America on an economic decline while the Chinese economy continues to ascend.

    But China appears to be very subtle about their lunar efforts– almost as if they don’t want to awaken the ‘Sleeping Giant’ of America. They want the US to continue down its path of self paralysis and economic decline. Why would China’s Communist Party want to share the potentially hundreds of quadrillions of dollars of natural resources of the solar system with America and the rest of the world– when Chinese space technology could dominate it all!

    The Moon is the key to economically and strategically controlling the the solar system. China already realizes this. How long will it take for America to come to the same conclusion?

    Marcel F. Williams

  5. DougSpace says:

    > Testing a Morpheus…at — say — the lunar south pole would do for a start

    Totally agree, but only if we are willing to follow-up on that information including with our own permanent base. There’s no substitute for a clear strategic plan, adequately resourced.

  6. DougSpace says:

    > My guess is that China is going to the Moon to stay.

    It would be surprising if they didn’t go to stay. In due time, China will be able to send its taikonauts to the Moon. But why repeat only the past glories of the United States when they could take the PR lead simply by having subsequent manned mission return to the same location hence establishing a permanent base on a planetary surface – something the US will do no sooner than probably the 2040s on Mars. A permanent lunar base will be just too tempting for the Chinese image.

    > China will be the undisputed world leader in space resource development.

    I believe that what China wants more than anything is to be recognized as the undisputed leading country. Developing lunar resources for cis-lunar transport and beyond is very smart and relatively achievable if they establish their permanent base at a lunar pole. However, they are not going about it in the most effective manner. Their reliance on all-government-all-the-time leaves their space leadership vulnerable to American commercial space. However, there are quite a number of significant lunar firsts which a well-funded Chinese space program could achieve if the US chooses not to compete for them. Just a few of them include: the first on-site exploration of a lunar pole, the first humanoid lunar robot, the first habitat, the first lunar greenhouse, plant, and fruit, the first permanent lunar base, the first woman on the Moon, the first couple & kiss, the first New Year celebration, the first Moon dog, the first birth on the Moon (Moon puppy), the first ISRU of lunar metals, glass, ceramic, the first robotic equipment produced largely from local resources, the first propellant delivered to cis-lunar space, etc, etc, etc. Some of these may be considered stunts but they will be viewed by the world as significant stunts. We’re entering into a new competition between which form of government is best: American-style democracy or Chinese “benevolent” dictatorship.

    • Only American space companies that have significant US military contracts and fear retribution from Congress have any loyalty to America and to the American people. Other private American space companies, however, will be subject to the power of the almighty dollar. And if China has the most dollars, they will be loyal to them.

      Private US companies have exported jobs over to China and have consistently appeased and propagandized for the ruling oligarchy in China– all for the sake of money.

      Private US companies have no loyalty to the American people. Their loyalty is to money.

      Marcel F. Williams

  7. Joe says:

    Fascinating article. I had not realized the size of the Chinese Lunar Lander.

    I had previously linked to another article (also by Craig Covault) on Chinese Lunar plans. I post it again to show how the two articles on the Chinese approach to Lunar Activity fit together.

    The NPR quotes from “Wu Ji, director general of the China National Space Science Center” are also fascinating in a down beat sort of way. That someone from a different culture half way around the planet understands what is happening here better than our political leadership (and apparently most of the US population) is enough to make you want to cry.

  8. Robert Clark says:

    Thanks for the informative article. The Chinese mission would definitively return new data if it were changed to land near a permanently shadowed crater, though it might be too late to change now at only a month away.
    It would need to change to batteries instead of solar panels. This would make it heavier and would make it a short mission. The excess mass capacity you mentioned would allow the extra mass for batteries as well as the larger propellant load needed for a lunar polar landing.
    This could prove definitively the large amount of water other missions suggest exist near the lunar poles. Some tentative readings from LCROSS also suggest valuable minerals may exist there. If this could be confirmed then that might provide a commercial reason to return to the Moon.

    Bob Clark

    • Paul Spudis says:

      If this mission works as advertised, they can go to the poles any time they want to. The lander has an RTG power source and so can survive indefinitely.

      Unlike us, the Chinese appear to have a long-range, strategic vision for what they want to accomplish in space — and they are pursuing it on their own timetable.

      • Robert Clark says:

        Thanks for the info about the RTG. I didn’t know that. Sure they can go to the poles anytime, but why not now? Clearly a lunar polar mission would be a slam dunk mission. Is it technically harder to do the navigation? Certainly it is harder to deal with the extreme cold, near absolute zero.

        Bob Clark

        • Paul Spudis says:

          I suspect that it’s simply a matter of wanting to learn to crawl before trying to walk. Landing on the Moon is difficult enough. Pinpoint landing in rugged, poorly lit polar terrain is something else again. They’ll go to the poles when they’re ready. By the way, it takes less energy and effort to deal with cold than to deal with heat in space. Polar lit areas are benign thermal environments, remaining a constant nice and toasty -50 C.

      • Joe says:

        I am going to have to plead guilty to not being up to speed on RTG power source capabilities, but the fact that the lander has an RTG power source brings up an interesting question.

        Could such a lander power source be used to recharge a battery powered rover?

        If so, that would greatly increase the useful operation time of such a rover in the shadowed Lunar Polar Regions.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Could such a lander power source be used to recharge a battery powered rover?

          In principle, yes. During our study of the RLEP-2 polar rover mission back in 2006, the rover had both an RTG and batteries. The former provides constant, low current power (and waste heat that is piped around the vehicle) while the batteries are used at high discharge rates to drive, articulate the arm, drill and other power-intensive activities. During “rest” periods, the RTG would recharge the batteries. In such an operational scenario, your mission can be (in theory) of indefinite length and range.

          The only difference in this case is that the RTG is on the lander, requiring the rover to return to the lander often to recharge (which is cumbersome). I would assume that it could be mounted on an appropriately sized rover (larger than the Change’E 3 version) instead.

          • Joe says:

            Just to make sure I understand correctly, while using the lander RTG power source to recharge a battery powered rover is possible:
            – The battery power rover would have a much shorter range (many trips to the lander).
            – The recharge time could be lengthy (due to RTG limitations).
            – A combination RTG/Battery powered rover should be achievable within the payload limitations of the Change’E 3 lander.

            Therefore, the optimal choice would be a RTG/Battery powered rover.

          • Paul Spudis says:

            Yes, in a nutshell.

          • William Mellberg says:

            Incidentally, both Soviet Lunokhod rovers used radioisotope heater systems to keep the vehicles’ electronics warm during the lunar nights. But the batteries were recharged using the large solar panel during the day (while the rovers were stopped). Lunokhod-1 and Lunokhod-2 don’t get a lot of attention these days. But they really pointed the way to the future of robotic exploration. Here are some Lunokhod panoramas:


            Be sure to click on the additional pages at the bottom for additional imagery.

  9. Warren Platts says:

    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.

    There is still the Resource Prospector Mission (RPM), formerly known as RESOLVE scheduled for launch in 2018. (BTW we’ll be adding an XRF detector capable of detecting higher concentrations of precious metals in order to test the electrostatic placer deposit theory–note here that China has imported over 2,000 tonnes of gold in the past two years.) Not to mention MoonEx et al. It would seem the bargaining chips will be ultracheap resource prospecting missions that the Chinese will then be able to fully capitalize on with their heavy, manned capability….

    • Paul Spudis says:

      A Chang’E in the hand is worth two RESOLVES in the bush.

    • nobody says:

      >>There is still the Resource Prospector Mission (RPM)

      Can you provide a reference here ? Has this been budgeted ? Quick search turned up nothing but a research proposal, not a budgeted mission.

    • nobody says:

      Out of curiosity i went back and checked the RFI

      So there is nothing substantial there apart from industry RFI, just the existing RESOLVE hardware with the rover and drill.

      The PDF says “Mission Concept Review for Resource Prospecting Mission will be held
      at ARC on September 17” – wonder how that went ?

      • Paul Spudis says:

        The RESOLVE rover is a joint mission by the Canadian Space Agency and NASA Human spaceflight. The concept has been around for several years, but never picked up for flight. Currently, it is in “pre-Phase A” — they have an instrument package and a prototype rover, but not a lander. NASA issued an RFI last summer for commercial space companies to provide a lander spacecraft for the rover/RESOLVE package and I assume that they are still evaluating the responses from that.

    • Robert Clark says:

      There has been speculation that China might “claim” the Moon. If they got to a shadowed polar crater first and it did turn out to contain valuable minerals I wonder what would happen.

      Bob Clark

      • gbaikie says:

        “There has been speculation that China might “claim” the Moon. If they got to a shadowed polar crater first and it did turn out to contain valuable minerals I wonder what would happen.”

        Chinese are member of Outer Space Treaty, which states:
        “The treaty explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet, claiming that they are the common heritage of mankind.[3] Art. II of the Treaty states that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.” wiki.

        So Chinese would need notify there intention to not longer be member of this international treaty. If they did that could then make such a claim
        and not bound any other part of this treaty.

        But China does need to make a claim- it doesn’t serve any use to them.
        They “own” the Moon by using it. If you are making rocket fuel and selling rocket fuel, you choose not to sell rocket fuel or charge very high price to any party. This may or may not be good way to do business
        but you other purposes, one you chose not to enable other parties by denying them your product.
        But the US has their ITAR regime. China could mimic ITAR in regard to the Moon or make companies join some kind regime which follows Chinese laws. So like Google agreement with China which include censoring content. Or rules could parties might launch from certain earth launch sites. Or use chinese upper stages. So many way to exert
        political control.
        Though any such restrictions would wiser if they didn’t have much cost
        to these companies. Google censorship for China doesn’t have much cost to Google. So it merely can be you play in your sand box you play by our rules and we not make the rules expensive to follow,
        So it’s big benefit to China to be able to make the rules. And considering how expensive and silly American rules can be, it could even be welcomed by all.

  10. Dallas Schwartz says:

    Sadly, no PATHETICALLY the present administration is derelict in their efforts to build upon prior admin’s work to re-establish the U.S.’s ability to fly too & land on the Moon. Neglecting to take into account the multiple finds that have been confirmed via numerous sources outside the U.S. that the Moon in fact has many unique qualities that make it the perfect platform for humanity to stretch out into the Solar system. Do we (USA) have to go it alone? No. Nor should we. Nor should we cede the ability to develop CIS-Lunar capabilities to anyone. It is a short sighted mindset that is pervasive throughout “leadership” at the WH & NASA towards the Moon that is clearly biased without any merit. Vast resources await all who choose to go; sadly we will sit idly by and wonder how & why we no longer matter.

  11. DougSpace says:

    If the craft is so large relative to its payload, could it have enough fuel to hop from its first location to a pole. Call it a twofer.

  12. Robert Clark says:

    Robert Bigelow discussed extending the COTS approach to lunar exploration in a news conference yesterday:

    Bigelow Urges Lunar COTS Program, Wants Moon Property Rights Review.
    Doug Messier
    on November 12, 2013, at 1:17 pm

    Today, Wednesday, Nov. 13, Charles Bolden will speak on the success of the commercial approach for LEO flights:

    Only natural it should also be extended to BEO flights.

    Bob Clark

  13. Leonidas says:

    In more breaking news, Bigelow has released his NASA-commisioned report concerning future lunar exploration and public-private partnerships.

    His two main points are that a) A lunar COTS program should be established, much in the same way the COTS program for the ISS and b) Private companies should be allowed property rights on the Moon, if the private sector is going to advance its presence there. He also stated that he will apply to the FAA, for a review of the Outer Space Treaty concerning private property rights. He also states in his report that if NASA isn’t allowed to do this, ever-decreasing budgets will only allow for a modest human spaceflight program, leaving the stage open for China, to do what the US should be doing.

    I’d much like to read your valuable insights on this Dr. Spudis. Do you think that public-private partnerships such as this, could jumbstart lunar exploitation and settlement?

    • Joe says:

      Bigelow is different from most of the other “New Space” companies in two pertinent points:
      (1) He proposes to produce habitat modules, not replace transportation capability.
      (2) Unlike SpaceX, he has not tried to undermine existing systems and organizations; but to work with them. He picked up the work done in the 1990’s on the NASA Trans-Hab project and worked with the NASA people to further develop the concept.

      Before Constellation Systems was cancelled he worked on an erectable/inflatable lunar surface habitat design that also had support within NASA.

      His problem has always been that even he (and he is wealthy) does not have the resources to “go it alone” without government support. His orbital module work is now being propped up by NASA requesting a module to be attached to the ISS. I am not saying that is a bad thing, but it would be better if he fulfilled the delivery to the ISS of the orbital module before jumping into the currently (in this country anyway) non-existent lunar market.

      If at that point he can produce (with his own resources) lunar surface habitats to be used with government supplied transportation (if that ever comes to pass in this country again) great, but there are a lot of “if’s” in that scenario.

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