Oh gosh, is break over already? Hello history buffs, and welcome to the first issue of This Week in History for the spring semester! Hopefully you are well rested and ready for some eyebrow-raising history because this week we will be heading into some outer space stories.
On Jan. 22, 2023, Lunar New Year festivities kick off across the globe to celebrate the arrival of the new year and new zodiac in a colorful way. Since it is happening this week, there is no better time to review the history of the event!
Based on the traditional lunisolar calendar — a time scale based upon the positions of the Earth and moon around the sun — the tradition marks the coming of spring and the change of the zodiac animal for the new year. These zodiacs can be traced back officially to the Chinese Han Dynasty, which places their creation to well over 2,000 years ago. Supposedly the wise and inventive “Yellow Emperor,” Huangdi was responsible for the calendar’s creation utilizing the zodiacs to measure the cycles of the moon. The 12 total zodiac animals stand for not just one year, but for one day in a 12-day cycle, as well as two hours in part of a daily cycle. Thus, the calendar had a useful timekeeping system until the official Chinese adoption of the Gregorian calendar in the 20th century.
However, the historical background of the calendar is enriched through a broad mythological context which brings much traditional meaning to the zodiacs. Set up as a race, the myth follows that the mystical “Jade Emperor” organized a race of animals to occur on his birthday. Taking part in the race were, of course, the 12 animals that make up the zodiac. While the story of each animal’s participation is unique and quite fun, the rat would wind up winning the race! Therefore, the order of the animals in the 12-year cycle follows the positions held in the race results.
Consequently, 2023 is considered to be the year of the Rabbit, being the fourth contestant in the race and fourth year in the cycle. However, that is not the case for all who celebrate the Lunar New Year. The calendar is notably distinct in countries such as Japan and Vietnam, with the latter considering this year to be the year of the Cat. Historically, the difference can potentially be traced back to a mistranslation of the words for cat and rabbit in transition from Chinese to Vietnamese. Yet scholars also believe that the change could be due to differences in societal views on animals, with cats being prevalent in households across Vietnam, as opposed to the prevalent rabbit populations of the Chinese savannahs. Regardless, the celebrations certainly are unique across the globe.
The next historical outer space event for this week comes from Japan with their first ever lunar probe launch on Jan. 24, 1990.
Known as the Hiten, the spacecraft was intended to be a tech demonstration for the growing Japanese space program. Despite some setbacks, the Hiten proved to be a success for Japan, successfully entering the moon’s orbit in 1991.
Loaded with a low-resolution camera as well as a computer chip for optimizing the stability of the probe for photography, the team behind the Hiten was hoping to take good photos for navigation.
Unfortunately, the goal of taking high quality images of the moon did not come to fruition, as the probe had difficulties stabilizing. Nonetheless, as the planned crash landing into the moon took place at the end of the operation, the craft’s cameras captured its descent in an infamous sequence of photos revealing a shocking plummet to the lunar surface.
Although this was not a groundbreaking space achievement on the scale of perhaps Apollo 11, it does help explore the overlooked space programs across the globe. So much focus is placed upon NASA, SpaceX or the European Space Agency, that often, the contributions of smaller national space programs such as Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science are often forgotten.
Lastly, after being signed on Jan. 27, 1967, the Outer Space Treaty went into effect, marking a momentous moment in the history of space legislation.
Thanks to the treaty, it was agreed that no nuclear weapons are allowed to be used in outer space, and that no nation can claim celestial bodies for their own. Including countless other space-freedom related clauses, the treaty aims to prevent a harmful human expansion into space; one where wars, conflict and perhaps a space-age imperialism arise.
Thanks to the treaty, the moon and surrounding planets seem to be protected from harmful human interference and open for all as symbols free of national boundaries, just to be gazed upon from Earth. From a historical standpoint, such an agreement comes as one of the five vital space treaties.
And with that, the first This Week in History issue of the semester comes to an end. See you next week!