But the country didn’t have the necessary technology for such a fast turnaround, and space-exploration efforts would be repeatedly derailed by political turmoil in the coming decades. The satellite launched at last in 1970, equipped with a single purpose: playing the first few bars of “The East Is Red,” an instrumental song glorifying China’s Cultural Revolution.
In recent years, though, China’s space efforts have jumped to warp speed. When the country launched its first astronaut in 2003, it became one of only three countries to have done so. It sent an uncrewed orbiter around the moon in 2007, and a rover in 2013. In 2011, it launched a space station that astronauts visited twice before it was decommissioned and deliberately crashed into the Pacific Ocean. A second space station launched in 2016. In 2018, China launched more rockets into orbit than any other country.
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China has more bold plans for the future. The country is aiming to land a rover on Mars in early 2021 and, if successful, would become the second country after the United States to accomplish the feat. It also wants to land astronauts on the moon by 2030.
These and other milestones can be celebrated on a global scale as an achievement for the human species, just like the landing was. “It is human nature to explore the unknown world,” Wu Weiren, the chief designer of the Chang’e 4 mission, said in a television interview, according to The New York Times. “And it is what our generation and the next generation are supposed to do.”
But China’s space accomplishments are as symbolic and strategic as the Apollo and Vostok programs were in the 1960s, especially now, when space agencies in Europe, Russia, India, and, most recently, the United States have put a big focus on lunar exploration. “We are building China into a space giant,” Wu said.
For spacefaring nations, impressive feats, whether it’s landing on Mars or on the far side of the moon, will always be seen through the lens of the nation that managed to pull it off. “When you are the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon, that says something about your science and technology, that says something about your industry,” the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng, one of the few Chinese-speaking analysts in the United States that focus on China’s space program, told The Atlantic in 2017.
If it still seems silly to consider geopolitical history in the exuberant moments after a moon landing, consider this reaction from the Global Times, a newspaper run by the Communist Party, China’s ruling party, reported by The Washington Post:
Unlike mankind’s mania in the past, the Chinese people ultimately harbor the dream of shared human destiny and practices open cooperation. We choose to go to the back of the moon not because of the unique glory it brings, but because this difficult step of destiny is also a forward step for human civilization!
A “forward step for human civilization,” indeed. But the “unique glory” is certainly nice, too.