On the 16th December 2020 China’s Chang’e 5 Lunar Explorer returned to earth, landing in Inner Mongolia with samples of lunar soil. This milestone in Chinese engineering and space exploration marks the first lunar surface exploration of any nation in several decades, and has taken little over a decade since the first Chinese lunar orbital mission in 2007 with the Chang'e 1. Chang'e 5 was China's first attempt and success with a sample return mission, obtaining 2kg of rock and soil samples before relaunching from the moon's surface to return to Earth.
What are the implications of this pioneering space mission for China, and what does this mean for the international community?
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A new space race?
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Conducted decades later and completely outside of the technological and propaganda “space race” that saw the US and USSR vying to be the first nation to make it to the moon, China's Chang'e project looks entirely in a different class. However Bradley Perrett of the Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief of Aviation Week Network has argued that China’s space mission is part of a similar propaganda campaign, albeit an internal one. Perrett argues that while the 1960s space race was a showcase of power and technological prowess internationally, China’s Chang’e mission is a similar internal propaganda campaign, designed to "show the Chinese people that China can do it" .
Since the Cold War the US and USSR were the two most prominent super powers, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the US has effectively been the world's sole superpower, and the space race was no more. China's rekindling of the space race is part of an on going effort to challenge US hegemony, China is throwing its hat in the ring in yet another area to demonstrate its rising status as a global superpower. In many ways the US has become increasingly inward looking in recent years and will probably not be able to enter this new space race on equal footing. The only comparable American project is Elon Musk's corporate efforts to reach Mars, but can the private sector really deliver on such an expensive goal? China has already established a lofty game plan, preparing to go back with Chang’e 6, to later conduct a manned mission, and possible establish a robotic lunar base at the moon's south pole by the 2030s.