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Under a Chinese Moon

5 minute read
Jeffrey Kluger

Want to hear a piece of utter non-news? The U.S. is sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this month. Want to hear a piece of very big news? China is sending an unmanned spacecraft to the moon this year. That expedition is huge, even cosmically game changing. More to the point, it’s perfectly legit to respond to such similar missions in such dissimilar ways.

It’s not just that the U.S. has launched missions like this many times before and China hasn’t. And it’s not just that the American ship is a mere orbiter, while the Chinese mission, which Beijing announced to great fanfare recently, will include a rover designed to toddle across the lunar surface.

What really distinguishes the two missions is who’s sending them, and why. The American space program has long been the global gold standard, and it has the record to prove it — with footprints on the moon, a massive space station orbiting the earth and unmanned probes scattered throughout the solar system.

(MORE: Beijing, We Have a Space Program)

But the American space program has also been adrift for more than 40 years, ever since the last Apollo crew left the lunar surface and the space agency as a whole became a budgetary afterthought in Washington. The NASA of the 21st century still has a robust unmanned program going, albeit one that is always just a single appropriations fight away from extinction. But the manned program does not meaningfully exist. With the grounding of the shuttles, the U.S. has no way at all to launch its own astronauts to its own space station and must instead hitch a ride aboard Russia’s ancient Soyuz spacecraft — at a cool $70 million per seat. (Soyuz is pretty much all that the moribund Russian program has going for it.)

Enter China. For more than half a century, the U.S., the old Soviet Union and the modern Russia had the manned space biz entirely to themselves. Then China decided to join the game — chose to join the game, to borrow the empowering phrasing U.S. President John F. Kennedy used when, in 1962, he first committed the U.S. to a manned lunar landing.

Since 2003, China has launched five crewed missions, taken its first space walk and launched a small, single-pod space station. It has also launched two unmanned lunar orbiters, Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2, in 2007 and 2010. Just like that, the new kid checked off most of the big boxes, matching many of the achievements of the U.S.’s first decade in space — and doing it, like America did, without an accident or a life lost in flight.

(PHOTOS: China Launches Its First Female Astronaut into Space)

It’s not the technology that makes China’s triumphs remarkable. That’s been around for decades. It’s the commitment to go — the decision to go — the cold, clear-eyed, no-distractions resolve to do something as dangerous and improbable as sending people into space and refusing to be diverted from the goal. That kind of national decisiveness is far harder to come by than mere technological prowess. The newly announced lunar rover is one more step in Beijing’s announced objective of putting human beings on the moon some time after 2020. We should both take the Chinese at their word and envy them for their commitment.

Manned and unmanned missions achieve different things. There’s no question that the robotic probes the U.S. still launches do more science at a far lower price than spacecraft carrying people do, and America should keep them flying. But the manned program achieves something else, something ineffable, something that dares not speak its name before a funding committee. We go to space for the same reasons we dance or sing or write poetry or paint paintings — to get outside ourselves, to feel transcendent feelings, to be gobsmacked by something wondrous. None of that makes any contribution at all to feeding us or healing us or keeping us alive. But all of it is a reason we take such joy in being alive in the first place.

Yes, China’s ability to stay focused on a goal is due in part to its top-down, unelected leadership, which tends to change hands once every 10 years — just the time you need to plan your missions and build and launch your ships. The U.S. would hardly want to trade its messy participatory democracy for anything of the kind. But we shouldn’t have to trade. It was a messy participatory democracy that sent the first human beings to the moon, and it’s a messy participatory democracy that could send them back. Like the U.S. in the Apollo days, China has chosen to go. We should too.

MORE: China’s Space Launch: ‘Wow’ or ‘Meh’?

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com