More than four decades ago, the United States won the race to the Moon with the Soviet Union. But today, experts say changes to the U.S. policy could open the door for new leaders in space.
Astronauts on board the U.S. space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth this week amid major changes for America's space program.
President Barack Obama is calling on private companies, not the national space agency NASA, to carry astronauts into orbit. His plan also ends a government program to return to the Moon.
"Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a [manned] return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned," said Mr. Obama. "But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We've been there before."
But, other countries have not. Critics of Mr. Obama's plan say not returning to the Moon could jeopardize America's leadership in space exploration.
"So what happens when China is able to do that, and worse, what happens when the United States may not be able to for quite a while?," said Dean Cheng, an expert on Chinese political and security affairs at The Heritage Foundation here in Washington.
"There isn't a direct threat at work here. People aren't talking about setting up Moon bases and throwing rocks at Earth, for example," he said. "But what it is, is it's a matter of national morale, national psyche, and a statement about where each country is on the technological development side."
Chaina's emerging role
China became a member of an elite club when astronaut Yang Liwei flew into space in 2003. Four years later, Beijing surprised many around the world when it successfully shot down a satellite. China plans to send a robotic rover to the lunar surface in 2012. And next year, the country is launching a small space lab to practice docking in orbit - an essential part of manned missions to the Moon and beyond.
Joan Johnson-Freese of the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island says that even without a manned Moon mission, the U.S. still will be the biggest player in space.
"The United States spends $16 billion or more annually on human space flight. It spends over $20 billion just on unclassified military space programs. China spends about $2 billion annually," said Johnson-Freese.
But she says Beijing's space program has launched China into a new geo-political level. "China is only the third country to have human space flight capabilities [after the United States and Russia]. That inherently projects the image of it being the regional technology leader," said Johnson-Freese.
Historian Jeffery Wassertstrom at the University of California, Irvine, says China is trying to reclaim the powerful status it held hundreds of years ago. "China, after having been one of the world's strongest and most developed countries, went through a period of relative decline and relatively being pushed around by other countries." he said.
Beijing's space program also serves more practical interests like raising cash and making alliances. China has sold satellites to Venezuela and Nigeria, and plans to build a $300 million satellite for Bolivia.
"So it's no accident that Venezuela and Nigeria, of course, both have oil. And Bolivia, interestingly, is one of the world's largest sources of lithium, which if you think we're all going to drive electric cars, is going to be a vital source," said Analyst Dean Cheng of The Heritage Foundation.
Deals like these are public, but most of China's space program is not. Cheng says that secrecy makes some U.S. officials nervous. "Much of the [Chinese] space infrastructure, for example, is managed by the People's Liberation Army," he said. "So there's a military component there. Also, in the post-Cold War conflicts the U.S. has been involved in, no enemy has ever had space capabilities."
Cheng says that could change as Beijing sells space technology to more countries.
Analysts say a lack of trust between Beijing and Washington has limited cooperation in space. But analyst Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College says there are national security reasons to rethink that policy. "We would have a much better idea of what the Chinese are doing - how much technology they have and how much they have access to," she said.
But even if Washington offers to work with Beijing, Johnson-Freese says China might not accept the invitation. She says like the United States in the 1960s, China's space program is as much about prestige on Earth as it is about exploration in space.