Red star rising: China’s ascent to space superpower

On 14 December 2013, the top trending topics on China’s biggest social networks were a popular TV show and a football match. If it hadn’t been for a concerted push from China’s state-controlled media, the casual observer might never have noticed that China had just become the third country in the world to land on the moon.
The news was not greeted with sweeping enthusiasm. After all, landing the Yutu robotic rover, aka Jade Rabbit, on Earth’s closest neighbour was a feat human explorers had bagged many decades before. "We’re now only 50 years behind Russia and USA," quipped one commenter on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. "Our country’s designers have some catching up to do," wrote another, before worrying that the joke would lead to police detention.
But if China itself seemed a little bored, that was nothing compared with the collective yawn echoing around the world. Apart from failing the novelty test, the mission was accomplished using knock-off equipment, and Yutu was dismissed as a tragic "me too" exercise by a country lagging decades behind the world’s leading space powers.
This common reaction missed the point. Jade Rabbit’s successful launch, landing and exploration is evidence of China’s meteoric rise in the space stakes, and one that will only accelerate. "It is a classic example of the tortoise and the hare," says Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington DC.
From the sophisticated communications network that guided the rover to its destination, to emerging satellite technology that is the envy of other nations, to its plans for a new international space station, China is a force other space superpowers ignore at their peril. The ripples are reaching out to affect everything from your phone’s settings to the first future footprints on Mars.
To get an idea of China’s burgeoning space programme, look no further than its satellites. Starting in 1970, China launched low-quality transponders and rudimentary spy satellites capable of only the most basic tasks at an entirely unimpressive rate of one per year. By 2012, the country had surpassed the US with 19 launches in a single year. China had also sent its first taikonaut into space, conducted its first space walk and completed its first rendezvous and docking with a small space laboratory.
"The manned program they are building is progressing a lot faster than the US did with theirs in the sixties," says Richard Holdaway, Director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory Space division, one of the UK’s closest collaborators on the Chinese space programme. "They are catching up at an astonishing rate."