China has similar ambitions for 2030. It spends lavishly on its space industry which, like other sectors, is achieving spectacular breakthroughs in record time. Since May 2021, it is the second country in the world (after the United States) to operate a robot vehicle on the surface of the planet Mars, the Zhurong rover.
On the far side of the moon
The lunar successes of the Middle Kingdom are equally impressive. Its Chang’e program started in the 2000s with the sending of orbiters. As early as 2013, the Chang’e-3 mission resulted in the landing of a rover which was able to perform a few wheel spins on the regolith. A masterstroke six years later, in January 2019, when China achieved a first: the gentle installation of a robot on the hidden side of our satellite. She managed to bring back rock samples during the next mission, in 2020.
At the same time, it is rapidly beefing up its manned flight program since the first sending of a man into orbit in 2003. It is assembling the elements of its Tiangong space station this summer. Eventually, the Chinese not only want to send their astronauts to plant the country’s flag on lunar soil, but also to install them there in a living base.
The Russians in support
The Russians, ousted from any space collaboration with the West – they have announced that they will leave the ISS, the International Space Station, in 2024 – should serve as their partner on this project even if the money and skills are now on the Chinese side. However, Russia hopes very quickly to resume sending lunar probes, the Lunas, the last of which dates back to… 1976. The take-off of Luna-25 is theoretically scheduled for this fall.
A prestige issue, lunar exploration had spurred the rivalry between the two superpowers of the 1960s, the United States and the USSR. The ultra-short deadlines of the Apollo program and the truckloads of dollars poured into its success owe everything to this fierce competition. The opponent has changed but the spirit of competition remains. With an additional ingredient, the prospect of exploiting the resources of the lunar soil and subsoil.