Feature

China on the moon: The new space race

China became the third country to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface.

A new nation has landed on the moon, said Austin Ramzy in NYTimes.com. China became the third country after the U.S. and the Soviet Union to land a spacecraft on the lunar surface this week, 37 years after mankind’s last mission to the moon. The unmanned Chang’e-3 probe successfully touched down on the moon, then disgorged its “Jade Rabbit” rover to take photos and analyze dirt samples. China quickly announced a second unmanned mission to the moon in 2017, and plans to put a space station in Earth orbit as soon as 2020. “The question is, what’s driving this Chinese passion for space?” said Bruce Dorminey in Forbes.com. Don’t underestimate their nationalistic ambitions. Even though China remains way behind the U.S. now, its well-funded, ambitious program could surpass a downsized NASA in a decade. Eventually, China may lead the world in anti-satellite technology, and even in “offensive space systems.”

“America need not be too jittery,” said The Economist. This Chinese mission has more to do with “boosting the country’s prestige” than with surging ahead in a 21st-century space race. China is “reliving the past” for exactly the same reasons the U.S. and the Soviets “lived it the first time round”—to emphasize the country’s relevance on the world stage and unite its people behind a national purpose. For the U.S., “the future lies elsewhere”—not in immensely costly, government-sponsored trips back to the moon, but in privately financed rockets landing on asteroids to mine precious metals or even establishing colonies on Mars. In private space travel, U.S. companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are leading the way.

It’s tempting to dismiss China’s lunar ambitions as “been there, done that,” said Alex Berezow in RealClearWorld.com. But its “wild-eyed aspirations are inspiring,” especially at a time when our own belief in our national mission is at an all-time low. Once, we poured our resources into “ambitious megaprojects” like space exploration to bind us together and reinforce our global exceptionalism. Today, the dysfunctional politicians in Washington can’t even agree on how much to spend on keeping the country running, let alone funding a space program. The days when “we, too, thought we could do anything” seem like a long time ago. “Perhaps the stark reality of a zealous and determined China will finally reinvigorate our dejected national spirit.”

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