Why China’s launch to the far side of the Moon is a big deal

China has an increasingly ambitious space program, which it views as critical to establishing itself as a global superpower. China has both military ambitions in space (where some of its technologies rival the United States’), as well as a desire for international prestige by doing new and interesting things in space. Sure, NASA has done a lot of amazing things, but it has not done a mission like the one China is attempting. This is one reason why an unprecedented, soft landing on the far side of the Moon is a big deal for the country.

China is also developing the hardware needed to eventually send taikonauts to the Moon. Earlier this year, the country signaled that it planned to accelerate development of the large Long March 9 rocket, similar in size to the Saturn V booster, to around 2028. Chinese officials have previously said their long-term goal is a series of lunar surface missions beginning in the 2030 time frame, and this rocket would enable that.

If it engaged in a “race” back to the Moon, China might be able to beat the United States. Under its present plans, NASA is unlikely to return humans to the lunar surface before 2030. Already, with its existing Long March 5 rocket, China could “pretty easily” be on the Moon in six to eight years, said former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who is presently under secretary of defense for Research and Engineering.