China is rapidly ascending as a pre-eminent force in the exploration of the vast frontier beyond earth’s skies. In the wake of a host of poor news coming from the field of space travel and tourism, China is in a lonely position as a positive outlier this week, after having successfully returned a spacecraft nicknamed “Xiaofei” from an orbit around the moon.
The eight-day trip marked the first time that anyone has returned a craft from a voyage to the moon in nearly 40 years, although Google’s Lunar XPrize Foundation has encouraged an amazing array of private-sector teams to throw their hats into the space exploration ring in competition for a $30 million prize. While private-sector growth is widely considered to be an important factor in bringing capital to bear on developing technologies, a recent spate of mishaps is a concerning development that may scare off potential investment.
The string of bad luck for American space superiority began as NASA retired their shuttle fleet in 2011, ostensibly on account of redirecting their focus toward bigger and better things. To appease the disappointed space travel enthusiasts, President Barack Obama offered a consolation prize in the form of remarks hinting at an eventual manned mission to mars. There was an elephant in the room, however, and it was the suspicion of many concerned Americans that NASA was simply no longer a priority for funding. For the first time since the 1960’s and President Kennedy’s announcement of the space race, America would not have a functional vehicle for space travel, while China was well along the development of their own program to orbit the moon.
Then earlier this week, the Antares two-stage launch system, commissioned by NASA to carry out the task of re-supplying the International Space Station in lieu of the shuttle fleet, experienced an engine failure seven seconds after launch and had to be remotely destroyed. Most recently, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, a space tourism craft lifted to a certain altitude by aircraft White Knight Two before detaching and igniting its own rocket engine, had a catastrophic failure when it detached from its tow. The craft crashed into the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot.
The latest news out of China is success, although they had recently experienced disappointment of their own this past January. After having successfully landed the rover Yutu on the surface of the moon, its drive system failed and stalled the vehicle. It had only managed to travel approximately 100 meters from its landing site. While the rover is awake and has functional ground-penetrating radar, its inability to further explore the moon was a major disappointment.China, however, is still the current world leader in terms of initiative toward pushing for space exploration, to the moon and beyond, and reaching for further goals than lunar orbit. They are expected to remain on schedule for a proposed 2017 mission to land a probe, Chang’e 5, on the lunar surface, collect soil samples, and then return it in an entirely automated process. Completion of that mission would place China in rare company as the third nation in history to collect a lunar soil sample, preceded only by the United States and Russia.
By Brian Whittemore
Photo by Mark Harkin – flickr License
Inset Photo Public Domain courtesy of NASA