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Home Blogs Chuck Wood China to the Moon, America Watches

China to the Moon, America Watches

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Written by Chuck Wood
19 Dec 2013

In 1972 the last Apollo spacecraft blasted off from the lunar surface, and no human has been there since. Compare this with the European exploration of North and South America; 40 years after Columbus put the first European footprints on American soil there were more than 300,000 Europeans living there. Nobody lives on the Moon.

20131215 yutu on-moon f537

The image above is of the Chang'e-3 l=rover Yutu, just after it rolled off the lander and showed its Chinese flag to everyone. Image from CNSA/CCTV

On December 14, 2013 China successfully landed the Chang’e 3 spacecraft on the Moon, and its small rover, Yutu, rolled down the ramps onto the surface. There are wheels on the Moon, a precursor to new footprints. 

The Chinese mission is scientifically sophisticated, exploring an unvisited part of the Moon, using advanced instruments that weren’t available for Apollo. Chang’e 3 will  increase the scientific understanding of lunar history and geologic processes.

For China this is an intermediate step in a long-term plan of lunar exploration. Chang’e 1 and 2 were earlier lunar probes that orbited the Moon, providing Chinese engineers and scientists experience in designing, building and operating interplanetary spacecraft. The lander makes China only the third nation to softly descend to the Moon (following the Soviet Union and USA) and only the second to have robotic rovers on the Moon, although the US has been driving robots on Mars since 1996.

China’s next announced goal is to bring lunar samples to Earth in 2017, and to send astronauts to the Moon in the 2020s. How does this compare with previous lunar explorations?


This table demonstrates a number of interesting and perhaps little known things. (Green represent future missions.)

1) It may be surprising to many people that spacecraft from six different nations have successfully reached the Moon.

2) Only the US and the Soviet Union were involved in the first period of lunar exploration (late 1950 thru early 1970s), and both stopped for at least 2 decades. Neither had come to the Moon to stay.

3) During the first period of lunar exploration there were far more failures than successes as each nation learned how to work in space: From 1957 to the end of 1965, the USA launched 16 lunar probes and only 4 worked, and the Soviets launched 21 and only 4 worked.

4) The new participants for the second period of exploration (since 2007) had almost no failures because all had far more experience with rockets (to launch Earth satellites) than the Soviets and the US did nearly 50 years earlier, so they knew how to build and fly spacecraft – the new challenge was simply to get them to the Moon. 

5) The table below shows that the second generation missions started at a higher level (orbiters rather than going thru the learning phases of flybys and crash landings) but it still took about the same amount of time to get to landers (6-7 years), but getting to rovers took only half as much time as for the Soviets. China’s plans for sample return will take about as long as it did 50 years earlier: 10-12 years.


Comparison of China’s lunar achievements with the first generation’s is somewhat difficult. But the Soviet Union sent its first rover to the Moon in 1970, so by that comparison, China is 43 years behind. This is China's 3rd successful lunar mission, which is where the USA and Soviets were in the mid 1960s.

Lunokhod 1 high resolution

The last rover on the Moon was the Soviet Union's Lunakhod 2 in 1974. It looked like it escaped from a Jules Verne story. Image from Wikipedia.

However, since the US and Soviets/Russia abandoned lunar landings decades ago, essentially China is not behind. More importantly, China has an active program to return to the Moon with modern orbiters, landers, and rovers, with the idea that humans would follow in the 2020s to mine the Moon for helium-3, which would power clean nuclear reactors on Earth. The US has no plain to send anything to the Moon beyond the two spacecraft that currently orbit it. The Moon is in China’s future but its in America’s (and the Soviet/Russians’) past.

Last update (20 Dec 2013)


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