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China moon mission returns to Earth, vaulting nation into ranks of space powers

Researchers work around the Chang’e-5 lunar return capsule after its return to Earth in northern China early Thursday. (China Daily/Reuters)
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — Bearing two kilograms (4.4 lbs.) of lunar rock and soil, China's Chang'e-5 capsule touched down on the frozen steppes of Inner Mongolia early Thursday and vaulted China into the ranks of only three nations that have ventured to the moon and brought back samples.

The mission will provide earthbound researchers with the first fresh batch of lunar material in 44 years. The last delivery came in 1976, when the Soviet Luna 24 mission scooped up about six ounces of moon rocks and returned.

The successful Chang’e-5 mission, which caps a series of breakthroughs for China’s space program in the past two years, has boosted Beijing’s confidence. Exultant officials on Thursday turned their attention to future targets and said they were hoping to erect a manned lunar base by 2030 as a springboard for further space exploration. But other officials dismissed criticism that China seeks to reprise the Cold War-era space race that pitted the Soviet Union against the United States.

China launched its Chang’e-5 mission on Nov. 24, and its lander touched down Dec. 1 near Mons Rümker, a volcanic mound on the near side of the moon. Chinese officials say the site is of a younger geological age and can provide new insights about the makeup of the moon and the universe compared with sites sampled in the 1960s and 1970s by the Soviet Union and United States — the only other countries that have obtained lunar samples.

China launched the Chang'e 5 spacecraft to collect lunar rocks from a previously unexplored section of the moon on Nov. 24. (Video: Reuters)

The mission was also significant, according to Chinese space officials, because it was the first time China synchronized and docked vessels in the moon’s orbit.

Footage released by state media showed the Chang’e-5’s copper-colored return capsule nestled safely in the snow and recovery staff members celebrating next to a Chinese flag. China’s ­space-faring exploits have stoked national pride and have been a priority for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has spoken of his “space dream” as part of a broader vision for China to become a comprehensive superpower.

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In a congratulatory statement, Xi hailed the mission as a “remarkable feat” that would be remembered by the Chinese people.

He called on China to carry space exploration forward and contribute “to building the country into a major power in space, to national rejuvenation, to the peaceful use of space and the building of a community with a shared future for humanity,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Pei Zhaoyu, deputy head of the lunar program at the China National Space Administration, said China would share some samples with international scientists after the capsule is opened in Beijing, but there are questions about whether that would include Americans.

Another top lunar program official, Wu Yanhua, told reporters that the U.S. Congress has banned NASA from collaborating with China since 2011. Whether China now shares its material with Americans would depend on “policies of the U.S. government,” he said.

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China is willing to collaborate with U.S. institutions and researchers on the principle of “equality, mutual benefit, peaceful use, and win-win cooperation,” Wu said. He added that China was not interested in a contest with the United States as in the 1960s, when Cold War rivals competed to see “who gets there first or who gets there more times.”

China’s plans to put humans on the moon have not yet been fixed, and any prospective landing “must serve scientific objectives,” he said.

At NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen, chief of the agency’s science mission directorate, congratulated his Chinese counterparts.

“The international science community celebrates your successful Chang’e 5 mission,” he said on Twitter. “These samples will help reveal secrets of our Earth-Moon system & gain new insights about the history of our solar system.”

The Chang’e-5 mission marks the latest success for a Chinese space program that has made rapid progress and revived competitive instincts in Washington. At its current rate, China will make in two decades the same advances that the United States covered in 40 years, according to a 2019 congressional report.

China’s space budget, while not publicly available, is estimated by the Space Foundation nonprofit to be the world’s second-largest at more than $8 billion a year, compared with NASA’s $22 billion. U.S. and Russian funding for their space programs has fallen relative to their respective national budgets since the space race of the 1960s.

Last year, China became the first country to land a rover on the far — or “dark” — side of the moon, a technical challenge that required the use of a dedicated lunar satellite to relay signals to Earth. In July, China launched its first mission to Mars and hopes to have a rover on the Red Planet’s surface by May 2021.

Beijing is also planning to install a crewed space station within two years and become the first country to send humans to the moon since the American missions were canceled after Apollo 17 in 1972. Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China’s lunar program, told Xinhua on Thursday that China hoped to have a basic research facility on the moon’s south pole before 2030 that would eventually use 3-D printing to produce building materials for housing. The moon, Wu, said, would also be a “springboard for exploration to further space and further planets.”

China’s advances roused the Trump administration, which vowed to maintain the U.S. lead in crewed space exploration. In March 2019, Vice President Pence declared that “the first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”

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“We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” Pence said as he warned about China seizing the “lunar strategic high ground.”

Before his election defeat, President Trump, who eyed a 2024 return to the moon, sought congressional approval for billions of dollars for NASA’s Human Landing System program. President-elect Joe Biden has not addressed in-depth how he views the space program.

This week in China, many citizens marveled at how quickly their country had caught up, particularly vis-a-vis America. Mr. Science, a popular blogger, recalled how the United States had amassed 380 kilograms (837 lbs.) of lunar soil through its Apollo missions and shared a one-gram speck with Chinese scientists as a gesture of goodwill in 1978 as the two countries established diplomatic relations.

These days, China has its own samples to share with the world, he wrote.

“We look forward to the not-so-distant future when a Chinese manned spacecraft lands on the moon and we install a lunar base,” he wrote. “Then, the moon will also see a Chinese person’s footprint.”

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