China landed an unmanned spacecraft on the moon Friday that deployed a land rover called Jade Rabbit. It was a soft landing by the third of three countries who have been able to accomplish that feat: the United States, the former Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic and China. The unmanned spacecraft, named Change’-3 set down in that portion of the moon known as the Bay of Rainbows.
Jade Rabbit (or Yulu in Chinese) is powered by sunlight and will travel the moon’s surface at a very slow speed to study the crust, soil and rocks. The projected time for rovers’s travels is about three months. Jade Rabbit weighs about 140 kilograms and has an optical telescope and ultraviolet camera to monitor how solar activity affects the moon’s crust and soil at various depths.
Given China’s current reputation for aggressive research and design, one wonders if they will find something more interesting than what America found when the moon was America’s getaway in space. There has already been a touch of controversy between NASA and China. NASA scientists have complained that the landing of the Change’-3 spacecraft has disturbed NASA’s ongoing research with its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer.
The moon is small, but not it’s not that small. Are these rumblings out of NASA the beginning of bad blood with new occupants in the lunar neighborhood? Will China, having landed on the moon, and NASA, a long term though absentee resident, be able to get along up there?
Few things hold the imagination more than the moon, that sister orb who rises and falls quickly, providing so many different ways of dividing a circle over the course of a month. The moon has always been thought of as a woman, going back to before the Greeks when ascribing traits to celestial bodies was part of the larger game of relating heavenly bodies to the gods above, the gods within and the gods below mankind.
Luna, the moon, alabaster, blue, red, yellow and pink, has been immortalized in song and poetry from Shakespeare to “do-wop.” She’s been called inconstant, beautiful, pale, seductive, intriguing , strangely silent, alluring and utterly perfect in her decision never to show one side of herself to those who gaze upon her.
On Christmas Eve, December, 1968, three astronauts orbited the moon, read from Genesis and gave the earth a look at itself as a rising blue ball against the black of infinite space. As seen from the moon, this earth appeared to be a beautiful, somewhat fragile blue orb with pale green and brown etchings, under white clouds that spin spirals in accord with Fibonacci’s ratio, a form so prevalent in all of nature.
That next summer, July, 1969, America stayed up late and watched as the late Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon and said the first words of a man standing on the lunar surface. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The confusion concerning the use of “man” for “a man” and the hesitation in Armstrong’s voice, moments not to be forgotten nor criticized, hung in the warm summer air as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, a complex and sometimes difficult individual, skipped over the surface, kicked up moon dust and enjoyed the lighter load consequent to the weaker pull of a smaller celestial body.
In the summer of 1969 as the Eagle landed, China was adamantly tied to earth. It was still reeling from Mao’s cruel Cultural Revolution. In 1969 China was a land of hunger, chaos, hatred, rice, and bamboo.
After ’69 there were several moon missions, including the almost-disaster of Apollo 13 in April, 1970. Norman Mailer wrote about these missions in Of a Fire on the Moon, and questioned whether Alan Shephard’s decision to play golf on the moon wasn’t something of an assault by the banal on the mythic. Mailer was great for those kind of inquiries. Shephard, America’s first man in space (non-orbital flight), was just a great astronaut.
Recently there’s been some talk that although NASA and its astronauts did in fact make every one of the moon flights since 1969, the actual film footage of astronauts on the moon was filmed by Stanley Kubrick in what he called his deal with the devil.
NASA approached Kubrick early in his career, after he made Dr. Strangelove. They noted that although Kubrick was known to all as a genius and perhaps America’s greatest movie director (with a respectful nod to Orson Welles), Kubrick (like Welles) could never convince the studios to give him the financing he needed or the artistic control he required to make the movies he wanted to make.
The deal was simple. If Kubrick helped NASA, the United States Government would see to it that Kubrick would never want for money to make his films, nor would he ever have to compromise his artistic integrity. He would have the final cut. He would have every cut, every camera angle, every shot, every bit of dialogue, every bit of everything.
So what did NASA want in return? They wanted Kubrick in a studio of his design to recreate on film the events that actually occurred on the moon for each Apollo mission subsequent to July, 1969. Kubrick allegedly made the deal and the rest is history.
Kubrick, ever a game player and master of visual puns, apparently lays out the entire back story of his deal with NASA in the subtext of his movie, The Shining. (Stephen King had nothing to do with the movie based on his novel). It’s left to the reader to determine the credibility of the officially unconfirmed report.
Just as the Soviet Union followed the United States in making the bomb, they also followed the U.S. in the space race. Just as China was the third country to manufacture the bomb, so China is the third of three countries to make a soft landing on the moon with Jade Rabbit.
Given that there’s more computer power in a chip that runs a medium priced wrist watch then there was in the Apollo capsule that carried Armstrong, Aldrin and Mike Collins, one might suspect that the advances in technology have made the way smooth for China’s most recent accomplishment.
While space walkers and space travelers, astronauts, cosmonauts, space station junkies, androids, robots and the rest, all darlings of a million movies, have traveled so much farther into space than man’s actually gone, there’s a bit of an anxiety gap between what man has accomplished and what man imagines can be accomplished.
America stopped going to the moon in the late 70’s when Americans were more concerned with the fall out from Watergate, the over-run of Saigon, gasoline lines, 20 percent interest rates, inflation, Ford’s stumbles and Carter’s odd perfectionism, than they were with moon rocks or moon dust. America left the moon in a dust of mystery appropriate for the celestial orb.
America left the moon to herself and anybody else who could obtain the backing and the stuff to make it all the way there and back.
The vacuum created by government inactivity invited all kinds of conspiracy theories to explain our quiet departure. Some said alien outposts on the dark side of the moon were responsible. Others said that too many secret missions had been lost in space. Still others claimed that evidence of visitors who walked the moon before Neil Armstrong was but the beginning of a larger story better told from the safety of earth.
Whatever the reason, America left the moon to herself. Advances in technology have made it possible for private interests with private money to arrange for unmanned space flights for commerce and manned space lights for education and the experience.
When Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he galvanized a nation for a ten year plan. America was in the ascendant literally and figuratively, though it was sadly ironic for some that ten years later it was Richard Nixon who greeted Neil, Buzz and Mike on their return to earth.
Now that China, our opponent, our partner, and our market for the sale of treasury paper, has landed on the moon with their Jade Rabbit, one notes the tickle from the competition nerve. It lasts but a moment and then reverts to the old joke about the barking dog who chases cars down the street. Everyone wants to know, whatever is he going to do with a car, if he ever catches a car.
By Michael Hogan