China Heads For the Moon

September 24, 2014

In 1957, the year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into space, Mao Zedong expanded China's nuclear weapons project into the country's first space program. Throughout the 1950s China cooperated with the Soviet Union, but after relations between the two countries declined in 1960, China began to work alone and to focus on missile defense systems. Though the program declined after Mao's death, China revived its space program after the end of the Cold War.  

A model of the launcher for modules, the Long March 5. (Source: Wikipedia)


The China National Space Administration was established in 1993 to manage China's interest in space exploration and to cooperate with the space programs of other countries. As part of its restructuring and revitalization of existing efforts, many components of the space program were renamed, drawing inspiration from China's traditional mythology and religion. For instance, the Long March (长正) carrier rockets were renamed Divine Arrow (神箭). Finally, in 2003, China became the third country to put an astronaut in space aboard Shenzhou, or Divine Vessel. After successfully sending astronaut Yang Liwei into flight, China focused on reaching the moon. Chang'e, the first lunar orbiter, followed Shenzhou. Although a moon landing is a significant scientific achievement in and of itself, the moon is also an important theme in Chinese culture. Chang’e, launched on October 24, 2007, was named after the Chinese goddess of the moon. The next two lunar orbiters carried on this tradition; Chang'e 2 and 3 were launched in 2010 and 2013. The rover launched from Chang'e 3 was nicknamed Yutu, after the Jade Rabbit discussed in our previous blog post. Yutu was the first Chinese craft to explore the moon's surface, venturing away from Chang'e. You can read some of the legends that give these crafts their names in Cheng & Tsui’s Tales and Traditions Volume 2. China’s future plans for its space program are ambitious. They include at least two more moon missions, building a permanent Chinese space station Tiangong (天宫) or “Heavenly Palace” in 2020 (which appeared in the movie Gravity), talk of sending a man to the moon, and even launching spacecraft to Mars. In 2011, China also sent an exploratory probe named Yinghuo-1 to Mars, but unfortunately it was unable to complete its mission. Yinghuo literally means “luminous fire” or “firefly,” but sounds quite similar to the ancient Chinese name for Mars, “shimmering planet.” While many English names for the planets are drawn from Greek or Roman mythology, Chinese planets are named for the elements and descriptions of the planets in the sky. For example, 水星, or “water star,” was Mercury’s name –even before water was discovered there last year! China’s space progam is evidence that the country will be on forefront of the scientific community in years to come. You can get an early start learning some science vocabulary in Chinese with Cheng & Tsui’s Step by Step Level C, which features fun stories that teach valuable content knowledge. The books in this vividly illustrated series include scientific experiments exploring Newton’s Laws of Physics and Theory of Gravity, narratives about Earth’s rotation and the lunar cycle, and tales from Native American folklore.