Mooncake, festival and China's lunar mission

Humans are adventurous creatures on the earth with lots of imagination. While all creatures live around each other with gravity holding them to the ground, humans look up to the sky and wonder about the moon.

US was the first country to send humans to the moon.

The Apollo Project, an enormous plan launched by the US from 1961 to 1972, helped take tens of thousands of close-up images of moon and delivered three astronauts on the moon by spaceflight Apollo 11.

The country later sent more astronauts; with 12 in total having the chance to view the earth from another planet.

At the same period, the Soviet Union was competing against the US on exploring the outer space and completed the whole program with sending first man--Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin-- into space, some satellites and bringing back lunar samples.

Compared with two nations, China has been a bit quiet in the space arena. But that doesn't mean it's not interested in the beautiful planet hanging over us during the night.

China's first satellite

Historical records show that way back at the end of 14th century, Wanhu, a scholar during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1683), was thinking about sending people into the sky by rockets.

He tied 47 self-made rockets on a chair, sat on the chair and held a big kite, expecting rockets to push him and the kite into the air to balance him for landing. It didn't work out, of course, but his bold move inspired people to research the field more.

A milestone in the space field that truly excited all the Chinese was when the nation successfully launched its first man-made earth satellite on April 24, 1970. The 173 kg satellite broadcast the then-popular song "Dongfanghong", which was picked up by the ground receivers and broadcast via the radio station to around the world.

From ancient times, China has stories about the sky and the moon. The myths are so old that they can be found in many ancient classic poems.

It is said there were 10 suns in the sky that made people's lives hard. Houyi, a heroic and strong man, shot down nine of them and forced the last one to rise and fall on time, benefiting all the people.

He later married Chang'e and taught people archery for a living.

Once he acquired pills that could turn humans into god and give them eternal life from goddess Wangmuniangniang. But Houyi gave them to Chang'e to keep them as he didn't want to leave his beautiful kind wife.

However, one of his students found out about them and asked Chang'e to hand them over when Houyi was out.

Chang'e had no option but to swallow the pills. She suddenly started floating up until she reached the moon.

Houyi came back home and heard the story from the maids. He was saddened but couldn't do anything. He missed his wife so much that he asked his maids to display fresh fruits and cakes that Chang'e loved on the table in the garden in her memory.

Many people began setting tables and offerings wishing luck from Chang'e after they heard that she had turned into a goddess on the moon.

Chang'e lived on the moon, accompanied by a rabbit, white as jade, who kept making medicine that could make humans immortal.

The offering ceremony has been widely spread among people, becoming a well-known Chinese festival--Mid Autumn Festival.

The interesting thing is that we can now understand many names of China's space equipment: Shenzhou, Tiangong, Chang'e and Yutu--they are all heavily associated with China's myths about the sky and moon.

The series of Shenzhou spacecrafts, from Shenzhou 1 to Shenzhou 11, are spacecrafts developed and operated by China to support its manned spaceflight program.

Shenzhou, literally meaning "magic boat", has been named with people's best wishes for the carrier in the space.

Shenzhou 1-4 are unmanned experimental spacecrafts for carrying astronauts.

Read more for: Timeline of China's manned space program

On Oct 16, 2003, China's first manned space mission was launched with Shenzhou 5 carrying Yang Liwei. China became the third country ever to launch a human into space.

Yang spent 21 hours in space, traveling more than 600,000 kilometers. He became the 241st human, but the first Chinese visitor in the space. He returned safely to the earth.

Check out for how Tiangong 1 inspires children

In 2008, China had its first spacewalker. Taikonaut Zhai Zhigang, who was then 42 years old, ventured out of the earth-orbiting Shenzhou 7 spacecraft on September 27 and became the first Chinese to leave a "footprint in the universe."

China thus became the third country in the world after the United States and the Soviet Union to undertake spacewalk.

China launched its first space lab Tiangong-1 in September 2011 with a design life of two years, in a preparation to put a permanent manned space station into service around 2022.

Tiangong, literally meaning "heaven palace", a phrase in ancient China people describe the sky afar.

In March 2016, Tiangong-1 terminated its data service after an operational orbit of 1,630 days, completing its main missions. It had successfully docked with the Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft and undertaken a series of experiments.

China's lunar probe program, or Chang'e program, was approved in January 2004. According to Ouyang Ziyuan, the country's chief scientist for the lunar probe project, the program includes three phases.

The first phase is launching lunar orbiters; the second is to soft land on the moon and the last phase is taking samples of the moon and bringing them back.

Click to see the updated news about Chang'e mission

By far, The Chang'e-3, incorporating a robotic lander and China's first lunar rover, as the second phase of China's lunar program, has already completed its mission and retired on Aug 4, 2016.

The spacecraft was named after Chang'e, the goddess of the Moon in Chinese mythology, and is a follow-up to the Chang'e 1 and Chang'e 2 lunar orbiters. The rover was named Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, following an online poll, after the mythological rabbit that lives on the Moon as a pet of the Moon goddess.

During phase two, the Yutu rover has had surveyed the moon's geological structure and surface substances, while looking for natural resources. It has been the first time China has soft-landed a spacecraft on a celestial body.

Yutu's Weibo account sparks internet users's passion for aerospace

Yutu has been operating on the moon for over two years, lasting longer than the Soviet Union's 1970 moon rover Lunokhod 1, which spent 11 months on the moon. In phase three, China's unmanned probe would return with lunar soil and rock. The timetable of the mission has not been specified, but earlier reports said it may be concluded by 2020.

The most updated news on China's space mission is China's second space lab, Tiangong-2, which is scheduled to be put into space on Sept 15, according to the China Manned Space Program Office. The space lab was transferred with its carrier rocket to the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province on Sept 9.

Tiangong-2, which can enable two astronauts to live in space for 30 days, can receive manned and cargo spaceships and will be used for testing systems and processes for space stays and refueling.

With China's marching on its path to space exploration, we may one day encounter goddess Chang'e, through unwieldy spacesuits, saying hi.

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Editors: Liu Wei
Designers: Hebe
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Published: Sept. 23, 2016

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