AustCham Corner: Long March to Mars

It was 20 July 1969, and I was in my school uniform chewing a sandwich, glued to our small black and white TV set at home. It was around noon and I was getting super excited during the build-up to the historic moment Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 stepped out of his lunar module. Witnessing the electricity of that moment was powerful and emotional given seven years earlier US President John F Kennedy had promised Americans they would set foot on the Moon by the end of the decade. Memories of Kennedy’s assassination just six years prior brought tears to the eye for viewers around the world.

Although the images of the landing were fuzzy and the sound was cutting in and out, as an eight-year-old kid, I was still proud that I was witnessing this historic moment, this “great leap of mankind”. Shared with 650 million viewers worldwide it truly capped off a wild decade in 20th century history and ignited imaginations to aim for the stars.

I was so thrilled, and rushed to the kitchen to tell my mum, “Come Mum, come to watch this, the astronauts are jumping on the moon!” I was shouting at the top of my voice.

The famous Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once said that all works of humanity have their origins in creative fantasy. In China, especially during Moon festival, our grandparents told us a wonderful folk tale about a lady named Chang’e (嫦娥) who ingested a forbidden elixir. This allowed her to fly to the Moon with her beloved pet.

Later, as I walked back to school, I was hit with a tinge of sadness to know that all these fairytales about the beautiful goddess Chang’e and the rabbit are only mythological and that it took real rockets to go to the Moon. At least it had been achieved though!

A while back I stumbled across an Aussie movie classic, The Dish. In the movie there is a famous scene with actor Sam Neill playing a game of cricket on a giant satellite dish in the middle of a sheep paddock. Little had I known that more than 50 years ago Australia was responsible for relaying this amazing Apollo landing footage so that it could be broadcast live from the surface of the moon to the world!

These giant satellite dishes were set up in Parkes Observatory in southeast New South Wales, Honeysuckle Creek in Canberra and in Western Australia up in Carnarvon. A small nine-metre antenna was set up to track the Apollo spaceship primarily when it was in our Earth orbit and to receive signals from the Moon.

As a kid I was thinking, “Wow! We human beings are so amazing!” We were sharing the Moon landing story in our class afterwards and I even asked my teacher innocently, “So, when are we going to Mars?” I remember everyone in the class burst out laughing at my comment.

Whilst enjoying my morning coffee on Saturday 15 May I was reading the headline “China’s robotic rover successfully lands on Mars today”. I thought how exciting this is, we now have a Chinese footprint on Mars for the first time! A solar powered Mars Rover named Zhurong will be roaming on this red planet for the next three months. The Chinese rover will be studying the soil and atmosphere and looking for signs of Martian life. It is now using its radar to penetrate into the surface to see if there is any subsurface water or ice particles.

Many think Macau is only a place for gaming and for people to come for a quick trip from the Pearl River region. We need to think again.

My phone was buzzing this particular Saturday morning. Why? Only a few know this about Macau, but we have a state-of-the-art State Key Laboratory of Lunar and Planetary Sciences set up in our local MUST technology university here. Since its inception, the faculty has completed as many as eleven major research projects including findings of advanced scientific support for data analysis of two successful Chinese Moon rover (Chang’e) landings back in December 2013 and December 2018. They also were key to the voyage to the dark side of the Moon, which was the first mission there by any country. It is now involved with the latest missions of China’s martian rover, providing many amazing outcomes since the 15 May landing.

The works of humanity have their origin in creative fantasy. In the third century, ancient Chinese scientists were applying the counterforce produced by exploded gunpowder to launching rockets for the first time in human history. Through centuries of trial-and-error experimentation these ancient fireworks and rockets have transformed into deep space vehicles. The ancient theory and primitive inventions were crucial to the development of today’s aerospace exploration in China.

Lo and behold, the Chinese space agency published the first photograph of Mars taken by its Zhurong rover. And Zhurong is known as the mystical God of Fire.

President Xi is now planning for China’s Long March to build a sophisticated crewed space station, aimed to be fully functional by 2022. President Xi wants to send Chinese taikonauts to our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon, before 2030 – a project for a new decade.

We in Macau join with the world in congratulating these brilliant Chinese scientists who made this historic Mars landing happen. This remarkable achievement will surely inspire younger generations to dream creatively about deep space exploration and advanced space science engineering.

And hopefully kids today with their smart phones can watch live feeds coming from our distant rovers, lunar bases and space stations – and even text them back selfies from Earth! I wish I could have done that when I was eight years old back in 1969!