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The US has cutting-edge technology and India won't give up, but China has its eye on the prize.
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.
Dragon v. Elephant
Chinese and Indian scientists claim their space programs are only pursuing peaceful, scientific research, and they deny they're competing in a "space race."
But it's clear that prestige and bragging rights are drivers for both countries — and neither wants to be the second Asian nation to put a man on the moon. "We can definitely put Chinese on the moon," Ouyang Ziyuan, a senior adviser to China's moon program, said recently, according to Taiwan's Want Daily. But if China falls behind India, "That would show that Chinese scientists are incompetent," he said.
Boosting military prowess is also a motivator. As the Cold War space race showed, most space technologies have military uses, especially in missile development and remote monitoring and control. "For any space-faring nation, space technologies will have military applications," Dean Cheng, an expert on China's space program at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in an email. "This is further reinforced in the case of [China] because of the extensive integration of the military into China's overall space program."
India's timeline for putting a human on the moon is actually ahead of China's — it's gunning for 2020, while China is looking at the 2020 to 2030 time frame and has not yet set a timetable.
But in terms of actual achievements to date, China's ahead. China has already put six men in space; India, zero. China has more doable, twin goals of establishing a space station above the Earth and landing a moon rover by 2020 (the space station program formally kicked off in late October). The success of those missions will determine how quickly it tries a manned moon shot.
China's lunar orbiters have so far fared better than India's, too — or Japan's. India's first lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 was forced to cut its mission short by more than a year due to glitches, and wasn't able to stay in a shallow orbit because of technical difficulties blamed on solar storms. Japan's orbiter actually beat China's to the moon in 2007 by a few weeks, but its mission was delayed several times and it was deliberately crashed into the moon due to a malfunctioning part.
China's missions have so far been mostly snafu-free, and it has now completed the challenging maneuver of putting the Chang'e 2 in an extremely shallow orbit.
Both China and India cite the possibility of mining lunar minerals as a potential long-term goal.
Such potential resources have China talking already about the need to plant its flag on the moon to secure development rights to whatever's sitting below the moon dust. "If China doesn't explore the moon, we will have no say in international lunar exploration and can't safeguard our proper rights and interests," Ouyang told Global Times.
The moon is thought to be rich in uranium and titanium ores, "rare earths" that have lately made headlines, and an obscure substance known as helium-3 that some scientists describe as a Holy Grail of energy sources. Helium-3 could potentially be mined from the moon, the thinking goes, returned to Earth and used in a nuclear fusion reaction to generate massive amounts of energy.
It may sound wacky, but helium-3's enthusiasts include Schmitt and his fellow moon-walking Apollo program veteran Edgar Mitchell (see interviews with them from the BBC special "Mining the Moon").
Indian scientists believe a successful fusion reaction using helium-3 could happen by the decade's end.
"Helium-3 could be one of best solutions for providing clean energy," Ajey Lele, an expert on Asian space programs at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, said in a phone interview. "Scientists say that if you can manage to get a shipload of helium-3 from the surface of the moon, it will resolve your problems for the next 10 years as far as energy security is concerned."
"But it's all in the experimental stages at this point," he stressed. "It's unproven."
The Heritage Foundation's Cheng is one skeptic. "Helium-3 becomes useful in a fusion power generation context," he wrote in an email. "It will become something meriting more sustained discussion when we get closer to actually having a sustained fusion reaction."
Still, he said that China's programs, especially its space lab, could give China an edge if and when the extraction of moon resources turns political. "Once you start mining, and even before, questions arise as to ownership, as to profit-sharing (if any), as to who has the ability to establish and enforce claims in space," he said. "A long-term presence in space will give China political capital."