Things got a lot more exciting in the Earth-moon neighborhood late last week, as Yang Liwei, the first Chinese person in space and now deputy director general of China Manned Space Agency, announced that “preliminary preparations” had already started for a Chinese crewed moon landing. The landing is planned to take place 67 years after Americans set foot on the moon; let’s see how the Chinese mission will be different.
The six Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972 set the standard for how to put human beings on the moon, because that’s the only way we’ve ever put anyone on anything other than Earth, ever. At all.
There’s not a whole lot of information about exactly what the Chinese plan will be, but there are some crucial details and some conceptual plans from the past that we can use to extrapolate what I think is a pretty likely scenario for how China will get Taikonaut prints on the lunar surface, and possibly kick over one of our flags, if they feel like making trouble.
The most obvious likely difference has to do with how they’ll get everything and everyone off Earth. NASA famously used the colossal and powerful Saturn V rocket booster to launch everything — crew vehicle, lander, service module, everything — in one big go.
At this moment, China does not have a similarly sized booster, but they are planning on building one, the Long March 9. The Long March 9 is capable of launching 55 tons into lunar orbit, a good 10 tons more than what the Saturn V could do.
You’d think this would be China’s best option for a moonshot, allowing them to effectively duplicate the proven Apollo plan. But that’s likely not what China is going to do. The Long March 9 has not yet been built and isn’t expected to have its first launch until 2025.
The fact that China seems to be planning a mission that will use three smaller rockets instead of the Long March 9 shows just how important their 2036 goal is: they don’t want to risk missing that goal because the LM9 may not be ready, so they’re playing it safe by using rockets they already have, and can start using for development, training, and test flights immediately.
So, if China isn’t going to do it like the U.S. did, with one big-ass rocket, what is their plan?
While the Chinese Manned Space Agency hasn’t released an official plan, we can figure out pretty well what they’re thinking by what they have said so far. Liwi’s statements suggested that the lunar landing complex will be launched in different parts, consisting of a lander, crew vehicle and some sort of propulsion module. Liwi also suggested that the initial rendezvous between the lander and crew vehicle would take place in lunar orbit, which differs from the Apollo approach.
Based on what we know, I’ve made a chart of what I think a likely Chinese moonshot will look like, and I’ve also made a chart of the Apollo mission plan, for comparison:
Let’s go over what we have here: for Apollo, one Saturn V carried the Apollo command module (the crew capsule that would eventually return to earth), a service module connected to the command module, and the lunar lander.
The final stage of the Saturn V acted as a propulsion module to send the command/service module (CSM) and lunar module (LM) to the moon. After the rocket stage burn, the CSM rotated to dock with and remove the LM from the rocket stage, which was then jettisoned.
From there, the docked CSM and LM entered lunar orbit, the LM undocked, landed on the moon, and then the upper ascent stage of the LM launched from the moon, docked with the CSM in orbit, and was then jettisoned as the CSM fired the service module engine to return to earth.
Now, the way China is likely to do this will start with three launches: two cargo-only Long March 5 heavy-lift rockets, one carrying the lunar lander, and one carrying a propulsion module.
A third rocket, most likely their human-rated Long March 2F, will launch the crew vehicle, which I suspect will be a modified version of their proven manned spacecraft, Shenzou. I suspect the Shenzou’s service module will be uprated with bigger engines and more fuel, and the heat shield on the return capsule will be upgraded to withstand the greater speeds and heat of a re-entry from somewhere other than the usual low-earth orbit.
The Long March 5 with the lunar lander will send the lander directly into lunar orbit. This may require a burn from engines on the lander, or a final stage from the LM5; I’m not sure. Regardless, the lander will get to lunar orbit and wait for a bit.
The direct-to-lunar-orbit concept for the lander was seen back in 2013, in a presentation about a moon landing done by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation:
The propulsion module will launch into low-earth orbit, where the crew vehicle will be launched as well. Once both are in orbit, the crew vehicle will rendezvous and dock with the propulsion module, which will fire its engines for the trans-lunar injection that will take the combined vehicle to the moon.
After the burn to get the crew vehicle to the moon, the propulsion module will be jettisoned, and the crew vehicle will continue to lunar orbit, where it will rendezvous and dock with the lander. This is another big difference from Apollo, where the lander and crew vehicles docked well before they reached the moon.
After docking, the lander will land on the moon, the taikonauts will do their thing, collect rocks, plant flags, take selfies, and then return to the orbiting crew vehicle in the ascent module of the lander. This part is all very similar to Apollo.
Also like Apollo, the ascent stage of the lander will dock with the crew vehicle in lunar orbit, the ascent stage will be jettisoned, and the crew vehicle’s service module will fire to send everyone back home.
Then there’s retrobraking, kicking off the orbital and service modules, re-entry, and a fairly conventional parachute-braked landing on, well, land, as opposed to an Apollo-style splashdown in the ocean.
After the initial launch stages and lunar-orbit rendezvous with the lander, this playbook isn’t that far off from Apollo—and why should it be, since Apollo worked.
If China manges to finish and man-rate their Long March 9, I could see the playbook changing to something very much like Apollo, with a solitary, massive rocket launch.
I’m glad to see China heading to the moon. I hope this spurs the U.S. to head back as well, and the eventual formation of a permanent base, and perhaps an eventual colony.
In some ways, it’s easy to see the American moon landing as a sort of anomaly, an achievement plucked from decades into the future by virtue of sheer will. It says a lot about what the NASA engineers, designers, and astronauts in the Apollo program achieved in that it’ll take almost 70 years for another nation to match it.
I’m excited to see this happen. I do hope China will take a little trip out to livestream some of the Apollo landing sites so all those moon-landing denier morons can finally shut the hell up, already.