UNITED NATIONS – China successfully landed a unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Thursday, becoming the first nation to reach that milestone. The news may have caught American viewers off guard, but not those in the space community.

John M. Logsdon is a professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“China had set out its plan for lunar exploration 15 or 20 years ago and has executed that plan and has done it on the dates they said they were going to do it.”

While China’s Chang’e 4 rover is now executing relatively conventional lunar activities, the whole mission required years of preparation.

“In order to do this you need a relay satellite because the far side of the moon is out of radio contact with the Earth. And China is the first to place that little relay satellite into what’s called the Earth-Moon L2 point on the far side of the moon.”

A graphic shows the orbit of China's Queqiao relay satellite, which enables radio communications with the far side of the moon. Courtesy: CNSA
A graphic shows the orbit of China’s Queqiao relay satellite, which enables radio communications with the far side of the moon. (Courtesy: CNSA)

Adam Routh, a defense research associate at the Center for a New American Security, says China is exploring the use of space for renewable energy, commerce and military communications. And even though Thursday’s lunar landing was scientific in nature, it will likely serve as a test for other systems.

“Of course the U.S. and the European Union and Russia we all do the same thing — we take the lessons we learn from civil space exploration and we apply them to other forms of technology and purposes.”

China may have serious military ambitions in space, but Logston says it’s premature to think the U.S. is losing any sort of new “space race.”

Instead, he wishes Congress would scrap a 2011 law banning NASA from working with China, a rule that has only slowed technological breakthroughs and ceded NASA’s role to European space agencies.

“I think we can craft a cooperative relationships that limit any danger from unwanted technology transfer or access to classified information from our side. We do it with Russia. I think can we perfectly well do it with Russia.”

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