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Dragon watch: China pulls ahead in moon race

The US has cutting-edge technology and India won't give up, but China has its eye on the prize.

Moon Space Race China
The sun is covered by the moon during a total solar eclipse in the Indian city of Varanasi on July 22, 2009. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The next human to plant a foot on the moon's surface is most likely to be Chinese or Indian — and that "small step" could happen as soon as 2020.

In late October, China's moon orbiter Chang'e 2 shifted into a lopsided orbit that brings it as close as 9.5 miles from the moon's surface. It's snapping pictures, scouting a landing site for an unmanned rover in two to three years' time in a lesser-known area of the moon known as the "Bay of Rainbows."

(CCTV program on the Chang'e 2's mission. Skip to minute 2.)

India plans a similar rover mission around the same time, and both countries hope to follow that feat with a manned mission as soon as a decade from now.

Both countries are pouring money and resources into moon programs. Japan has also floated plans for a manned lunar mission and moon base. By contrast, the recession-battered United States earlier this year scratched its Constellation program — the ambitious, George W. Bush-launched plan to return Americans to the moon's surface — because it was too pricey (about $100 billion through 2020 alone).

So is Asia poised to make a giant leap, past the United States, in space?

Not necessarily. Experts say both China and India still lag far behind the United States in space expertise and experience. After all, American astronauts bounded over the moon's surface more than 40 years ago. President Barack Obama himself downplayed the importance of manned moon missions earlier this year, saying bluntly "we've been there."

U.S. spacecraft and satellite technology is still cutting-edge; witness the high-tech American lunar orbiter that's now sharing the moon's skies with China's orbiter. And the United States is now aiming for a daring new stunt: landing an astronaut on an asteroid by 2025, a project dubbed "Plymouth Rock."

But some worry that by giving up its grand lunar ambitions, the United States is ceding important political and symbolic ground to Asia — China, in particular. "I’m afraid what the president and his administration want is for the United States to no longer be pre-eminent in space flight, and that has very, very serious consequences," former astronaut Harrison Schmitt told the Madison, Wis., Capital Times. "I am very much of the mind that America can’t afford to be second-best in space.”

There are commercial fears too. While extracting lunar resources may still be the stuff of science fiction, in another generation or two it could become reality — and the United States might find itself on the back-foot in a race to mine the moon.

Moreover, voices including former Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk the moon, argue that the moon should remain a focus of the U.S. space program because it could provide a stepping stone to Mars and the rest of the solar system. Last year's findings of extensive water on the moon (first confirmed by an Indian lunar orbiter, by the way) suggest that rocket fuel could one day be produced at a moon base, making a Mars trip more feasible, Armstrong's co-pilot Buzz Aldrin pointed out recently.