China’s Mission to the Moon, and the New Politics of Space Exploration

Between the presidential election, spikes in the coronavirus pandemic, and the beginning of mass vaccination, you might have missed this other world-historical event: China landed on the moon.

On this episode, Watson’s Director Ed Steinfeld talks about China’s lunar mission with Watson Faculty Fellow Jim Head. Jim is a Professor of Geological Sciences at Brown, and a leading expert on interplanetary exploration. They discuss the science and politics of China’s growing space program, and what it means for human space exploration in the 21st century. They also look at why this next generation of space travel will be nothing like the Cold War ‘space race,’ and a little bit about where exactly Elon Musk fits in, too.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


[MUSIC PLAYING] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Trending Globally's producer, Dan Richards. Between the presidential election, the spike in the coronavirus pandemic and the beginning of mass vaccination, there was a lot going on this fall. So, you might have missed this other world historical event. China sent a probe to the moon. Chang-e Wu, or Long March 5, is on a historic mission to bring back rock and soil samples from the moon.

SUBJECT 1: When the rocket was launched on November 23rd, it was a source of national pride.

DAN RICHARDS: And importantly, in these types of endeavors, it made it back.

SUBJECT 2: Well, it's due to return to Earth in the coming hours, carrying with it the first lunar samples in more than 45 years.

the moon and the first since:

He's been working on human space travel since the Apollo missions. Yes, those Apollo missions. And as you'll hear in the interview, in addition to his technical expertise, he's been a key player in making space exploration a cooperative and truly global project. He and Ed talk about the science and politics of China's growing space program, how it affects China's relationship with the United States and what it means for human space exploration in the 21st century. They also talk about why this next generation of space travel will be nothing like the Cold War space race and a little bit about where Elon Musk fits into all this too. Here is Ed.

ED STEINFELD: Hi Jim. Thanks so much for being on Trending Globally.

JIM HEAD: It's my pleasure, Ed. It's really great to be here and to talk about these topics.

ocks back from the moon since:

JIM HEAD: Well, it's very different actually. You're right about the fact that 50 years ago, we're celebrating the middle of the Apollo program right now after 50 years and indeed, we did return hundreds of kilos of samples with human beings and that was a really incredible accomplishment scientifically. The difference is that NASA has gone on to other destinations and we've been exploring Mars, and outer planets, and Pluto and beyond Pluto, and so, that's what we're doing.

We have a spacecraft on the way to Mars, about ready to land this summer. And China has picked up that golden objective of really understanding the moon and introduce new technology, that's quite different actually than what we did 50 years ago. And what the Soviets did when they had three sample return missions, Luna 16, 20 and 24. So it's very new and it's very different and it's part of their overall priorities and essentially their strategy for space exploration in general.

ED STEINFELD: What is some of the new science that the Chinese are doing? What's the potential? What kinds of questions are being answered with this latest mission?

JIM HEAD: Well, this is what really excites the international community. What the Chinese did, and we've been actually working with them on this for several years, is that they picked up on areas that in fact had not been explored by Apollo or Luna, the Soviet missions. And the thing was that all the Apollo missions landed on the near side. OK? Because we didn't have access to the far side.

We would need a communication satellite. And they landed in the central and Northeastern part of the moon. Not because they couldn't land elsewhere, it's just because those were the exciting important places at the time. So, 50 years later after integrating and absorbing all that information, we've learned that there's a huge area in the Northwest that's characterized by essentially radioactive material, thorium in particular, and it's really unusual. It's where the youngest volcanic activity is on the moon.

And what we're trying to do is understand why that's the case, but we haven't been back. We don't have the capability at the moment to land or explore. What the Chinese did was to put an orbiter, called Magpie Bridge in English, into orbit so that they could land on the far side. And they landed with Chang Zheng 4, a rover, on one of the most important places in the anomalous areas we haven't explored, the South Pole-Aitken basin.

And then Chang Zheng 5, indeed, developed a capability to land and return samples from the Northwestern part of the moon robotically. So, the Chinese developed the technological capability to actually go into orbit, land on the surface, launch back to orbit, rendezvous with the orbiter, exchange the samples in orbit and then come back with the whole kit and caboodle. And so, the deal is that you can land anywhere on the moon now, which is a major, major accomplishment.

And just imagine, lifting off, landing on the moon, collecting all these samples, putting them in the top of the spacecraft, launching the top of the spacecraft back up, finding the orbiter, rendezvousing, docking, transferring the samples, disengaging the lander and then going off back to Earth. Those are fundamental technological capabilities. And actually, I call this the, essentially, a dress rehearsal for Mars sample return.

We're trying to figure out how to return samples from Mars. And what this capability has shown is exactly how to do it and that it can be done. That has not been demonstrated before. So, that's a big deal.

ED STEINFELD: There's so much incredible technological change that's happened in the 50 years since the Apollo program, but at the same time it seems like what the Chinese are doing involves more than just the absorption and utilization of new technologies, but somehow I think you're suggesting there's a lot of know-how that's involved, maybe tacit kind of knowledge that comes from doing this. Meaning, maybe it wouldn't be so easy for other countries, other programs like the American program, to duplicate this. Is that the right way to understand what the Chinese are achieving?

JIM HEAD: Well, I think in a broader perspective, it is. The thing about space exploration is that it really has a bunch of different facets to it. And one of the main facets is that it can demonstrate technological capabilities and people can learn how to do it in each country technological feats. OK? So, advance technology in their own country. So, this is what happened with Apollo.

I mean, we always hear about, oh, you know, Apollo. We got Velcro from that. We got Tang. We got other kinds of spin-offs, so to speak. But the key point is, in doing these very complex tasks, you end up really developing capabilities that have utilization far beyond the individual act itself.

So, this is why so many countries now, like India, Israel, and China, are in fact exploring the moon, because it's nearby and they can show essentially their capabilities and demonstrate them to the world by exploring the moon. And so, that's actually what's going on here. So, the technology development is homegrown. OK? And it is utilized, like an Apollo, the spin-offs are amazing throughout essentially industry, and science, and technology.

ED STEINFELD: What are the links, if any, between what's being done robotically in the Chinese program and their human space flight program?

JIM HEAD: Basically, they're building a robotic program to lead to human exploration by the twenty-thirties of the moon. Currently, the robotic program is a civilian program and currently the human exploration program, the taikonauts, the astronauts of China that go into orbit, is a military program. It's run by the PLA, the People's Liberation Army. Most of the taikonauts out are in fact PLA Air Force officers, et cetera.

But, this is changing and so basically the robotic program is leading to a human exploration program. And one of the things that that's doing, very interestingly, is that it's changing the basic framework of the Chinese program. The recent call for new Chinese astronauts, taikonauts, has had the biggest exception that we've seen ever, which is that, oh, by the way, we'd like to entertain candidates from the Chinese Academy of Science institutes. So, we're seeing some changes there that may indicate that the civilian program and the military program are going to come together and become more civilian in some ways for planetary exploration.

ED STEINFELD: Jim, as you are answering I thought about-- again, correct me if I'm wrong. On Apollo 17 we had a geologist, Jack Schmitt, who I don't believe had a military background. So, in a way you're suggesting the Chinese program may be converging toward something the US did in its human spaceflight program, integrating in scientific professionals in Addition.

To military professionals, pilots. But the US seems to have lost that maybe on this space exploration side, or at least the US has paused it. Is it the case that the US will try to reignite this kind of approach to space exploration? Or is it the case maybe that the US and China will pursue very different approaches to human space exploration? JIM HEAD: Well, I think human space exploration with NASA and the United States as a whole is still very distinctly separated between military and civilian. So, even in Apollo, there were no military people who were, in fact, astronauts. They were all retired or they were not active military people at the time they flew. Of course, if I was going to the moon on Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong, I would like to say, gee, make sure that somebody really knew how to fly the spacecraft.

OK? So, these are the people that really knew how to do it. And they all had what Tom Wolfe called, the right stuff, which isn't just arrogance, it's know-how and essentially composure under pressure and so on. So, really, I think the US program has always been civilian, whereas the Chinese program definitely started out as being military and I think there's a transformation, if you will, that may be underway here.

Of course, I don't want to be naive about that. I mean, we're not talking about a culture that changes easily in this context, but I'm optimistic. Because, I know a couple of young women who were from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who were candidates, who actually very excitedly told me that they were going to apply. And I just really encouraged them.

ED STEINFELD: Do you think the Chinese system does science differently from how Americans, or Europeans for that matter, do science? And how might those differences, if they exist, relate to the nature of the space programs?

JIM HEAD: One of the things I love about science is that it's an international endeavor. So, international endeavors and cooperation is really important in this sort of thing. But science is indeed done differently in these different areas. For example, in the case of the Soviet Union, there's a whole series of infrastructure of the Academy of Science, the Russian Academy of Sciences.

There are dozens, hundreds of institutes that have thousands of people engaged, sometimes several thousand in an Institute. This is where the science is largely done and it's the same in China. China has a huge Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is really the thing that dominates. So, our Academy of Sciences is completely honorary it doesn't have any institutes at all.

Most of the research is done in universities, in private industry and things like that. So, it's very different that way, but nonetheless, the fundamental structure of communication is the same. So, we write papers, we publish papers, we talk about research at meetings and that's the exciting part about it. Even with all these cultural and organizational differences, we can still communicate really, really well, as we did with the Soviets, as we still do with the Russians and we do with the Chinese and other space scientists throughout the world.

ED STEINFELD: Can you talk a little bit more and maybe provide some examples of the ways in which the Chinese lunar program specifically is open to international collaboration? What kinds of collaborations are happening? Who's talking to whom?

JIM HEAD: Let's take the lunar exploration, CLEP, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. The missions are open to instruments contributed by other countries. This is commonly what we do in the United States too.

Most of our things are homegrown, but we do indeed engage a lot of foreign interaction to provide instruments on various spacecraft and rovers and things like that. The Chinese have done that really well and they have a robust program to do that under the Chinese National Space Administration. And so, on the Chang Zheng 4 lander, they were Swedish, I believe, and other European instruments that in fact flew and gathered data and are still doing so. So, they are engaging people actively in their exploration program.

ED STEINFELD: Have Americans flown any instruments or experiments on Chinese missions?

JIM HEAD: Well, this brings up a very difficult situation. Even throughout my interactions with the Soviet Union, tens of years of going to Moscow and working with my Russian colleagues, there were never any legal restrictions against me doing that. Of course, we were all aware of essentially the security issues involved and we were very careful about exchange of information.

ED STEINFELD: And this was during the height of the Cold War, right?

JIM HEAD: Oh, totally during the height of the Cold War, but there was really good basis for solid geological interpretation and interaction and sharing of data. But you also have to be not naive about any interaction with the Soviet Union, with Russia, and with China. The problem now is that several years ago, Congressman Wolfe of Virginia put a rider on the budget bill, I believe, to make it illegal to spend government money, NASA money, interacting with any aspect of the government of China.

This had to do with human rights violations in his view, but that law, which essentially got through as a rider, as a lot of laws do, remains to this day. And this really restricts NASA's capability to interact with the Chinese. It restricts us as scientists from interacting with them. Because of the fact that I can operate independently on my own, it's not against the law at all.

But at the same time, if I want to spend some research money to do collaborative research, I can't do that. There are some exceptions to that, but in general, this is the type of thing that keeps a US instrument from even being considered to be flown on a Chinese mission. And it's a big problem.

ED STEINFELD: I wonder how the efforts in the United States to commercialize space flight, how that plays into all the things we're talking about. And what I mean by that is, if the US is increasingly commercializing launch vehicles and the operation of human space flight, how does that affect the ability of the United States to set goals or have long term strategic coherence in its space program these of what say the Chinese space program is doing?

JIM HEAD: It's a very, very good question about the differences in the approaches, almost cultural approaches of the two programs. So, let me try to describe the US approach. And we have for better or for worse four year terms of office. Sometimes they're repeated, sometimes they're not. We are trying four the third time-- the third time, to go back to the moon with humans. OK?

So, the first two times were under the previous to President Bush's and basically, they were not supported. And so a lot of work was done but nothing happened. When Obama came in he redirected the second one. When President Trump came in he put a presidential directive out that we're going back to the moon and then onto matters.

So, it's the whiplash of all that that makes it really difficult to do strategic planning. But that's part of our democracy. It's just the way it is, OK? On the other hand, if you take a look at China and what they're doing, of course, is-- this is a big cultural difference too, is they think way in the long term. And then of course they have a type of government that in fact plans in the 5-10 year, 20 year spectrum.

And these plans are consistent. They don't get changed every five years. They get added to, or modified, or readjusted, but they are long term plans. And only thing that's holding them up is indeed essentially their technical capabilities. And boy, they're really showing with launch vehicles and spacecraft, et cetera, that they're doing an excellent job at that. So, that's a difference.

So, in the US, one of the aspects of the what I like to call, the wild West culture, which is kind of exemplified by Elon Musk, he's going to do a private approach to this. OK? A lot of people think, oh, Elon Musk is just spending his own money to do all these things and build these rockets. That's not the case at all.

NASA is supporting that, I would say, 90% plus, because they want to have this capability. On the other hand Elon Musk is working to send humans to Mars. I'm actually a consultant for SpaceX and we spend a lot of time thinking about where to go on Mars, because Elon Musk wants to start a colony there. And boy, I'll tell you, based on what I've seen, that's going to happen.

If you go to the floor of SpaceX's building in Hawthorne, California, I have to tell you that the energy and the dedication there is very much like it was in Apollo. It's the closest thing I've ever seen to the Apollo program. So, they're on a mission and they're doing great. They're launching astronauts, and their spacecraft, et cetera, et cetera.

It completely changes the personality of the space program. And I'm not sure where that's going to go in the future with NASA, et cetera. But I think it's a good thing. And the Chinese are really looking at that very interestingly and we're actually seeing a lot of independence in some of these launch vehicle companies now. The Chinese CASTC, the essentially, Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation has hundreds of subsidiaries, a lot of which are doing the same kind of thing that SpaceX is doing. And so it's going to be the wild West and China pretty soon too in some ways.

ED STEINFELD: This is super interesting and I know we're talking primarily about the Chinese program, but I have to ask. Maybe try to help me understand how commercialization is really operating. So if I remember correctly, from film and pictures from the Apollo days in the US, there were plenty of technical workers who on the back of their jackets had North American or Rockwell there, or Martin [INAUDIBLE].

So, how does that differ? They're working for a contractor. How does that differ from how today, SpaceX is relating to NASA? Is it so different?

JIM HEAD: So, I think there is a misconception there. So, like I said a little earlier, that essentially SpaceX and Elon Musk is not using his own money to fund the space program. He is getting at least 90% of that from NASA, because NASA wants to encourage private industry. It's exactly what was done in Apollo, OK?

The spacecraft individually were built by Grumman, Martin Marietta by North American Rockwell and these other industrial organizations. And to me, that's the way it should be. NASA, the government provides the leadership for a broad scale goals and objectives, but indeed, private industry is organized together by an organization like NASA to produce these types of things.

And that's how we got to the moon with Apollo for crying out loud. Everybody responded to Kennedy's challenge. So, SpaceX is a different breed in that sense. They're very similar in the same way that they're being paid to do these sorts of things and they rose to the occasion beautifully, OK? But Elon Musk is indeed taking some of the profits from that and figuring out what he can do with the large rockets that they're building in an endeavor, a personal endeavor pretty much, which is to send humans to Mars in this decade.

It's quite possible. And indeed fly them to the surface of Mars and essentially take advantage of the resources there and try to build a colony. And of course, you know that he has this lunar mission in which he has gotten support from a Japanese design manufacturer to indeed send people, himself included, I believe, to orbit Mars and return to the Earth.

And so this is how he's also funding things. It's not under the Aegis of NASA, nor will this mission to matters be. And so that's a big, new deal. That's very different than what we've seen in the past. And it's very exciting, it opens up a lot of possibilities.

ED STEINFELD: So, do you foresee either a space race, in a way? Not that everything has to be geopolitically competitive, but is the idea that there could potentially be a space race of human space flight or human missions to Mars or a human presence on the moon between the United States and China, government programs, or is it more the case maybe a commercially driven program in some ways moving parallel or even competing with a more state focused Chinese program? What does the future look like?

JIM HEAD: I would say two things. One, in the US, basically, you're going to have NASA, government run programs, like Artemis program, competing with private organizations. Elon Musk has the capability with that big rocket to in fact launch humans to the moon easily and tons of cargo, OK? So, we're going to see competition.

The space race might be between civilian and government agencies in the US. It probably won't be a race, because we're not that stupid in a lot of ways and probably people will realize, OK, we have to do this together. In China, I think the people have said, oh, there's going to be a new space race to get humans to the moon. Is America going to win or is China going to win?

This is not the:

They are going to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity. They have a robust Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, which is doing amazing things, a robotic program, which is leading to the Human Exploration program. And they're going to do it and there's no question about that. And frankly, they don't care what we're doing. I think it should be viewed-- China's space program is their Silk Road to space.

They're building the Silk Road in so many different dimensions now on the earth with connections and industry and transportation, both in China and also into other countries around the world, seaports infrastructure, et cetera. In our country, administration is changing, a little stuttering if you will, to try to get to the moon. Like right now with President Biden coming in, I think the question is, are we going to try to land at twenty-twenty-four? Is the Artemis program going to survive as a major emphasis for NASA? We don't know.

ED STEINFELD: How does one or how would you justify major investments in space exploration when there's so many other concerns? We got climate change, and issues of equity and equality in society, and human health. What really is the justification for the long term investment in space?

JIM HEAD: Yeah. It's really interesting and I've faced this throughout my career. Because, when I was working at NASA headquarters in Washington DC, I worked every day of the week on getting astronauts to the moon, training them, et cetera. And on the weekends I was down on the mall with 100,000 of my closest friends protesting the Vietnam War. I mean, I don't see that as a conundrum.

I don't see that as a conflict. I think we do have these problems, but at the same time, what the space program can do is so much more important for the country. It can help us in all these different areas. For example, it can indeed provide the capability to understand the fundamental aspects of climate change. That will certainly change in the Biden administration.

Previous Republican administrations have downplayed essentially earth observational satellites and capabilities, because they didn't want to hear it. That's going to change big time. Second thing that's going to change is that we will be able to, with a space program, essentially look upon it as a scientific technological and organizational frontier.

That is so important. All these things that we do from investments in space help the country in general, technology and essentially artificial intelligence technology and combating pollution. All of these things contribute to that. And I think a really important one is inspiration. I went into the space program because I was inspired by the idea of, how could I help go to the moon?

Wow, my gosh. It brings people into science and technology and these are the ways that we're going to solve these important problems. I think too that if you look at NASA and you look at the nature of the Astronaut Corps, it's really diverse. So I think, as role models, these people are in fact playing a huge role in demonstrating that NASA is looking at the complete population and that is really inspirational. So, I think that's another aspect of the program that's really critical as well.

So, I think we have to modulate and moderate and set priorities. But I think it would be a big mistake to do way with the space program and put the money into some other thing to solve problems. Because if you look at the budgets, the Defense Department spends NASA's budget and in a couple of days, OK? And if you take a look at health and human services and things like this, things we should be investing in, they are in fact huge compared to NASA's budget.

So, just to tell a quick story here. Mike Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot, became after his mission the director of the National Air and Space Museum. And he would stand-- very unassuming guy. He would stand at the exit to the Air and Space Museum and ask people, so, what do you think about how much money we're spending on space? And what do you think about-- the question you ask.

How does this fit in national priorities? And they said, well, I think it's really important, but you know, NASA's budget should be cut. We should do some of these other things. And he said, well, how much do you think NASA's budget is relative to defense and human services?

Oh, 10 times larger. And of course, he concluded that NASA needed less publicity, not more publicity. Because everybody thought all the things that we're doing that were so great must cost gillions of dollars and they don't.

ED STEINFELD: Jim, you mentioned inspiration and I'm certainly inspired by your career and your dedication to spaceflight and the science of space exploration, but I'm also in awe of the number of students you've trained on the science front, on the engineering front, who've participated in these efforts. Can you say a word about what kind of roles are available today for young scientists and engineers in any of the programs we're talking about? The Chinese program, the American program. What can young people do?

JIM HEAD: Well, it's just absolutely exciting, actually, because every year when my incoming graduate students come in, I say, this is the best possible time you could come into this program. And after 30 years of that, I thought, am I really just kidding them about that? No, it's actually better every year.

Because as the endeavor grows, more and more opportunities come up. One of my former students is now the director of the National Air and Space Museum and she's head of the Biden Transition Team for space, for example. And others have gone into careers in politics and careers in industry.

It's a career field that trains you for almost anything, because it's problem-solving. One of my former students, Jessica Meir, she is now an astronaut and she's flown into space in the International Space Station. And she was just chosen as one of the people 18 who are candidates to go to the moon for the Artemis program.

ED STEINFELD: For a really young scientist or an engineer, somebody maybe just graduating from college or having just completed her first advanced degree, are there opportunities really at the ground level to build a career by starting in the space program?

JIM HEAD: Oh, yes. Plenty of opportunities to do that. A number of my students have gone to the NASA centers, for example. Goddard Space Flight Center, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. One of my former PhD's is at the Marshall Space Flight Center working on the upcoming missions.

We have people at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Johnson Space Center. And these people get entry level jobs. Sometimes they'll do a postdoc, et cetera, but they're really well prepared.

ED STEINFELD: And you see something comparable in China when you're there? Are there an equal number of young people involved in the program there?

JIM HEAD: There are lots of young people involved. In fact, it's really exciting to think about this too, because one of the things I've been doing for the last five or eight years or so is participating in planetary science summer schools. Is to go to teach young students in planetary science. It's a new field. It's a new field in China, so they're eager to learn.

It's absolutely amazing. And indeed, there is a cadre of young people. And why are the in this field? It's the very same reasons we were talking about. They know that this is something that's important. They see the accomplishments of the space program. They're proud of that, they want to be a part of it.

Also, when you think in the long term, when you think of the five year plan and the presidium of the Chinese Communist Party, what the priorities they set, space is right up there and they know that guarantees them a career. So, there are tons of young people involved in there. And this is going to be one of the keys to their success.

Some years ago, I saw the movie Apollo 13 for the first time and I've seen hundreds of space movies and they're all terrible in terms of the way it really is. So, about a week after I saw that, I saw Jack Schmitt, the Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, a geologist colleague of mine. And I said, "Jack, did you see that? Wasn't that great? Wasn't it the best portrayed of what it was like to be there?"

And he said, "Yeah, that's right, Jim, but it was just one thing." And I said, "What was it?" He said, "Well, didn't you notice that everybody-- all the actors who portrayed the people in mission control were all too old?" And I thought, "You know, you're right."

He said, "Don't you remember that the average age of people in mission control was 28 years?" 28 years. Now, when do you think of that, would you turn the National Space Program over to a group of people 28-years-old? Well, yes and we did it. So, the youth and diversity is really critical to the success and the Chinese are doing that.

ED STEINFELD: Jim, you've given us a lot to think about and as always, I really appreciate your taking the time to share your knowledge with us today. Thanks so much.

JIM HEAD: Well, thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be associated with the Watson Institute.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards, and Alina Coleman. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. Additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find more episodes just like this by subscribing to us, Trending Globally on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more information about this show and other podcast produced by the Watson Institute, go to watson.brown.edu. Thanks for listening and tune in next week for another episode of Trending Globally.

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