US billionaire Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy reusable space-lift rocket amazed the world this week when it propelled its payload – a sleek, cherry-red Tesla roadster sedan – into heliocentric orbit, with a dummy named Starman sitting behind its wheel.
Another quirky touch in images released by Musk’s SpaceX, the pioneering space transport contractor behind the monster rocket, was a plaque on the sports car’s dashboard that read “Don’t Panic,” a salute to Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Like everyone else, Chinese aerospace aficionados have been relishing the launch of the world’s most powerful carrier rocket currently in use – a rocket that is capable of delivering a payload of 16.8 tons to Mars. News and photos of the Falcon Heavy’s liftoff, and of the Tesla roaming in space, have been splashed across front-pages of Chinese papers.
Indeed, the Falcon Heavy’s arc to space from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, left a deep impression even among many militarist Chinese netizens more given to badmouthing America.
“The last time I was thrilled by a rocket launch was seeing China’s Shenzhou 10 spacecraft carrying our trio of taikonauts in 2013. You have to admit American businessmen Elon Musk has left his mark in human’s history of space quests,” one commented.
The buzz around the Falcon’s launch has also, to some extent, negated state media’s ballyhooing about China’s indigenous Long March rocket family, which has launched some 170 satellites into space since the 1970s.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Long March V, which has the highest payload capacity to date of any Chinese rocket, put some 25 tons of cargo into orbit when on its maiden launch in November 2016. Theoretically, it can ferry a 5-ton payload to Mars. In other words, a fraction of what the Falcon Heavy is able to lift.
China also had to endure the embarrassment of a bungled launch last year. That mission, in July, had to be aborted due to cascading engine failures, as the Long March V cast a 7.5-ton satellite into the Pacific. The mishap will effectively postpone Beijing’s Chang’e lunar program by at least a year.
In a rare admission of weakness, Xinhua noted afterward that even if the rocket’s journey had been smooth, the jewel in the crown of China’s engineering might remains insufficient to propel a Chinese shuttle, with taikonauts and rover, to the moon.
China will have to come up with a more powerful rocket for that odyssey – but, given the sheer strength of the Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin 1D engines, it would be a breeze for it to send American astronauts back to the moon.
But make no mistake, Musk’s ambition with his super rocket goes well beyond the Earth’s natural satellite: he has set his sights on the Red Planet.
The inconvenient truth is that China’s long march, over more than four decades, toward becoming a space power, has been outpaced by a private US company founded in 2002.
Jiao Weixin, a space science professor at Peking University, told the Beijing-based tabloid Global Times that Chinese private firms are nowhere near mustering the money or talent to make a splash in the aerospace industry. “In China, it’s still a game exclusively for the national team.”
On the national level, in 1969, when NASA was landing the first humans on the moon with the help of a Saturn V rocket – which remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket brought to operation use – China response was to shoot a miniature 300kg Dongfanghong-1 (Red Orient) satellite on top of a makeshift rocket refurbished from a long-range missile a year later.
Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily also cautioned in an op-ed on its social platform that China is still “light years” behind the US, where NASA and two privately-funded firms (SpaceX and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin) are vying for the lead in the field of space exploration, and has decades of catching-up to do.
The Long March 9 rocket, earmarked for Beijing’s manned lunar project, has an anticipated maximum payload of 140 tons to Low Earth Orbit and 50 tons to Lunar Transfer Orbit. That would put China well in the game. But an arduous journey of development and testing awaits before then.