China goes boldly

In this photo provided Jan. 3 by China National Space Administration, the first image of the moon’s far side is taken by China’s Chang’e-4 probe. China National Space Administration/Xinhua News Agency, via AP

In his last days as one of the space shuttle program’s flight directors, Minnesota native Paul Dye had a good answer when I asked him about the future of human space exploration.

As a species, I have no doubt that humanity is a race of explorers. There is a difference between humanity and a nation. I think that we will continue to explore as a species.

We will continue to explore this planet. There is a great vast ocean bottom that hasn’t been looked at. We will explore low earth orbit some more. We will explore near planets, and we will move out into the stars.

This is not to say the United States of America is going to be the one to lead that charge. Just as the British Empire tapered off and the Roman Empire tapered off, sooner or later almost all human institutions end. But that does not end what humankind does.

The United States still has dreamers, although they’re in the private sector now and the program is no longer a source of national identity. But it was hard not to think of Dye’s observation with Thursday’s news that China has visited the far side of the moon.

You’re probably in one of two camps on this one. There’s the “China eats our lunch” crowd. But there’s also the “that’s pretty cool” caucus that is probably more faithful to the idea of human achievement.

“All spacefaring nations have their sights set on the moon, for reasons of both pride — how they view themselves as a nation—and prestige, in the sense of how others view them,” Jim Head, a planetary scientist at Brown University, told PBS NewsHour last month. “Furthermore, as in the initial Cold War competition between America and the U.S.S.R., successful space exploration is a huge demonstration of ‘soft power,’ the ability to show technological prowess and leadership in a non-threatening peaceful manner.”

“We Chinese people have done something that the Americans have not dared try,” Zhu Menghua, a professor at the Macau University of Science and Technology, said Thursday.

China intends to establish a human base on the moon by late in the next decade, and to send a probe to Mars that can return to Earth.

“This is a major achievement technically and symbolically,” Namrata Goswami, an independent analyst, tells the New York Times. “China views this landing as just a steppingstone, as it also views its future manned lunar landing, since its long-term goal is to colonize the moon and use it as a vast supply of energy.”

Meanwhile, the International Space Station continues to go around in circles, as it has since 1998. The U.S. plans to eliminate funding for it in 2025, likely leaving China’s as the only space station, making Dye a space prophet.