It’s been an exciting few months for anyone who is enthusiastic about space exploration. On 26th November the NASA InSight lander arrived on Mars (those tense landing moments are always worth a watch). Then on 13th December Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft reached an altitude of 50 miles, the so-called ‘edge of space’. On 2 January, the New Horizons Probe flew past Ultima Thule, producing the clearest image yet of one of the most distant known objects in our solar system (its about 4 billion miles away).
And of course the Chinese Space Agency put a probe onto the far side of the moon. It’s part of a grand plan for Chinese space exploration, including a permanent lunar base which can itself facilitate exploration to Mars.
According to the BBC, the Chinese state media emphasised that this was an achievement for all of humankind, not just China. The Global Times newspaper noted that the project was an ‘open and co-operative’ project rather than as part of a Cold War.
The Chang’e 4 touchdown brings mixed emotions. Despite what state-controlled media might say about the ‘love of science’ or whatever, the mission is also a ‘prestige’ project. One reason that the Chinese government is signing off on this expenditure, is that it shores up the contested idea that its political model is correct, moral, and good for the world.
But China deploys extensive surveillance and censorship against its citizens, and locks up its activists and dissidents. Celebrating the success of any Chinese government project feels… icky. But equally, deliberately not celebrating such an achievement also feels wrong. So there is a cognitive discord I may as well acknowledge.
The most confounding thought is the question of whether it would have happened if not for the top-down control that the Chinese government can exert? Democracies do fund Moon and Mars missions. But do they fund lunar bases? Or is it the case that missions like Chang’e 4 only happen under wealthy authoritarian regimes that can suppress dissent? And if so, is the the trade off—short term human rights denial, but long term human progress—worth it?1
So if we want to forge an ethical but positive response to this, how about this: If this is what the Chinese can do when they maintain an oppressive regime… just think how amazing they could be for humanity if, and when, they liberalise their political system! Moon bases and Martian colonies, yes, but also renewable energy technologies, food and transport advances, and sublime art. This moon landing is the bright crescent; yet the full potential remains shrouded in the darkness of its oppression.
A final, positive thought. This kind of project can only be run successfully by inherently knowledge-seeking people, who are likely to have an open and internationalist temperament. So who’s to say that this space explorations – will not inspire or catalyse a liberalisation in Chinese politics?
1. The same question applies to the Pyramids at Giza. They are now undeniably a compelling global treasure. But they were also built by slave labour.