BEIJING — For many Chinese, the successful Dec. 14 moon landing of the Chang'E-3 expand=1] spacecraft was a moment of particular pride and joy. China has become the third country in the world to independently achieve a soft landing on the Moon and begin a round of lunar prospecting. It is also a milestone in China's space industry development after a lapse of 37 years since the last Russian lunar landing.
However, not everyone here was so thrilled. "So the red state flag has made it to the Moon. What has this got to do with us?" one Chinese online comment read, summing up much of the public skepticism.
Indeed, China's official media had already published a Q&A style commentary to explain why China is exploring the Moon, even as masses of ordinary people can't even make ends meet or feel secure about their future.
In John F. Kennedy's famous 1962 "We Choose To Go To The Moon," speech, the American president explained the logic of his country’s space program:
“But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? ... We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win ..."
Yes, people and a nation need to have dreams, and we can imagine how much Kennedy's remarks encouraged many young people to go into aerospace studies.
This does not dismiss the public's questioning, but rather tackles it from that person's point of view, accepting it as reasonable doubt.
In China, whether it's about the atomic bomb research of earlier days or about the space program today, we hear about "the Chinese national renaissance" or "scrubbing away Chinese humiliation of the past hundred years" embodying a collective sense of competition. Thus the "Moon discourse" is finally turned into a replacement of the collectivism of individuals. What it aims to achieve is the collective strategy, as a nation. This probably explains why Chinese people have trouble actually seeing themselves in the country's space exploration projects.
However, such a situation isn't limited to China. Several Asian countries that share a similar psychology in the face of the West are beating the drum of space exploration to wake up and re-establish national self-confidence. Among them there seems to be a scrambling competition too.
Just as the region's economy outshines the others in the global financial crisis, its space exploration has also become a new force. More and more Asian countries are joining this club that used — until very recently — to be led by the West. Before China's soft landing on the Moon, South Korea launched the Naro-1, its first carrier rocket last January. In September, Japan, an established space power, unveiled Epsilon, a new launcher. In November, India launched Manjialian, the Mars probe.
Codes of conduct
Each of these Asian states' space operations has its own consideration. The Naro-1 will bring huge economic benefits for South Korea — while at the same time getting rid of its reliance on the United States for space intelligence. Meanwhile, since the 1970s, India has always been a space power with independent satellite research and launch capabilities although this is very often neglected by the Chinese. India's space programs imply much geopolitical and strategic intention.
India is currently preparing to send a lunar rover and astronauts to the Moon to prove that it has overtaken China in terms of space technology — although, as it happens, many countries also mock India because it is exploring Mars despite not being able to guarantee a stable electricity supply to its population.
We should also keep in mind the space program of Iran, which recently sent a live monkey into earth orbit and brought it back safely.
All these signs suggest that the whole of Asia is becoming an emerging force in international space development, even if it still trails far behind the U.S., Russia and Western Europe. Asia's biggest weakness is the still relatively weak cooperation across borders, and the relationships between countries still plagued by many unresolved historical problems. With such distrust between China and Japan, and China and India, for example, the space race in Asia suffers the consequences, as fears remain about the accelerated militarization of space or even an Asian arms race in space.
With other Asian nations — including Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore — also beginning to invest in space capability, a region-wide code of conduct for space should be established to encourage cooperation and diminish suspicions.
Across Asia, space programs should avoid being colored by nationalism, and rather emphasize the contributions the technology will offer to the well-being of mankind. Scientific research itself should be the focus, rather than treating it as a sport filled with rivalry or swaggering public relation activities.
Space research can be a source of national pride, but ultimately its real significance is the ways it can improve the lives of ordinary people.