Fifty years ago this week, Neil Armstrong became the first person ever to set foot on the moon. Since then, no country besides the US has successfully replicated the same achievement. Now China is looking to change that.

In Chinese mythology, Chang’e is a former mortal who flew up to the moon after drinking an elixir. The story embodies the ambition of China’s Lunar Exploration Program, which is also referred to by the name of the Chinese moon goddess. Its first mission kicked off in 2003, and the ultimate goal is to put a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

For decades, China has been regarded as a loser in the global space race, playing catch-up to superpowers like the US and Russia. The technology gap, it seems, is swiftly narrowing. 

In January this year, China achieved what no other country has done before: Putting a probe on the far side of the moon. That lunar region faces away from Earth, making it difficult to establish communication with ground control to ensure a safe landing. That’s why all previous landings took place on the moon’s Earth-facing hemisphere.

The Chang’e 4 probe is tasked with exploring the far side of the moon. (Picture: China National Space Administration/Xinhu­a News Agency)

A moon landing in 2019, even on the far side of the moon, might not sound like a remarkable achievement. But the vigorous interest in the Earth’s celestial companion isn’t exclusive to China. In the US, the Trump administration is pushing to return Americans to the moon by 2024, four years ahead of NASA’s original schedule.

“Make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today,” said Vice-President Mike Pence in March. China’s landing on the far side of the moon, he said, “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.”

There are reasons why the moon is still a focal point of the new space race five decades after the Apollo 11 landing. 

For one, the moon is a potential power source for the Earth. Its soil is full of an isotope called helium-3. The idea is that if we find an economical way to mine and ship this resource back to Earth, then nuclear fission reactors could use it as fuel to generate clean power. That would be a godsend for any energy-hungry nation, especially one the size of China.

Staff at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center on January 3, 2019, when China’s Chang’e 4 probe touched down. (Picture: Jin Liwang/Xinhua)

Mineral mining aside, scientists are still looking for answers on the origin of the moon.

China’s exploration of the far side of the moon is already showing results. Its lunar rover, named Yutu after the mythological rabbit that accompanies Chang’e, detected two unusual types of minerals, according to a study published in May. On Earth, these minerals are usually found deep underground, suggesting that the materials discovered could also come from deeper within the moon, i.e. its upper mantle below the crust. The discovery lends some credence to the theory that the moon is made up of lighter substance on the top and heavier ones below. 

While China is breaking new ground in its lunar quest, the US is plotting an accelerated return to the moon. Besides a planned crewed mission, efforts are also underway to build a four-person space station orbiting the moon by the mid-2020s to house astronauts along the way.

US astronaut Neil Armstrong seen reflected in the helmet visor of his colleague Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969. China didn’t land its first probe on the moon until 44 years later. (Picture: Neil Armstrong/NASA)

China also wants an expanded presence on the moon by then. The head of the China National Space Administration said in March that the country will build a lunar base station in the next ten years, according to state media outlet Xinhua

As the cosmic rivalry heats up, tension between the US and China could complicate any future collaboration in space. But that hasn’t stopped the Chinese space agency from offering a helping hand to a famous American hero. 

When the trailer to Marvel’s blockbuster Avengers: Endgame went out in December, fans learned that Iron Man was running out of food and water in space. With its tongue firmly in cheek, China’s space agency suggested that its Chang’e 4 probe could help. Why? Because it’s carrying potato seeds on board.