BEIJING-In a darkened auditorium some 250 young Chinese sat spellbound in a projector’s otherworldly blue glow, listening to the father of China’s lunar programme chart their country’s once and future voyages in the final frontier. They said that they are going to explore the who0le solar system soon. While the US retreats from manned space exploration China is seeking to establish itself as an ascending superpower, in the same way that the US and Soviet Union did when they alone dominated global politics.
Colourful maps of interplanetary flight paths and photos of the moon’s craggy surface taken by China’s two previous rover missions, Chang’e-1 and Chang’e-2, illuminated the screen in Beijing. Then pictures of China’s latest rover, which made its soft-landing last Saturday, and finally, another image, this time a mock-up: an astronaut standing on the moon, proudly planting a red Chinese flag in the lunar soil. “We will send a Chinese astronaut to the moon,” Ouyang Ziyuan told the rapt audience at the event, organised by China’s popular science website Guokr.
“The Communist Party Central Committee strongly encourages us to go even beyond the moon, and China is already capable of deep space exploration,” said the 78-year-old former chief scientist of the lunar programme. “We will explore the whole solar system.” Ouyang’s impassioned presentation, and the pride and wonderment with which the 20-something crowd greeted it, underscored the significance of the programme.
For many in China, while their country’s steady progress into space is a technical achievement, it also signifies something much greater. China’s boom of the last 30 years has made it the world’s second-largest economy, and it is increasingly seeking geopolitical heft of a similar stature. The military-run space programme fits into that effort, specialists say. “For China, it represents two things,” said Maurizio Falanga, executive director of the International Space Science Institute Beijing and one of a growing number of Western space scientists seeking to strengthen collaboration with China. “One, they’re able to do it by themselves; they have the technology and they know how to do it,” he said.