China has openly declared its desire to colonize the moon. The world’s most populous nation is unlikely to build lunar settlements, but that’s not the point. China’s motive lies not in constructing a lunar Hong Kong, but rather in luring India into a loud public competition. Later this year, if all goes as planned, China will become the third country to send a citizen into space. An orbiting taikonaut will be even more impressive if American shuttles are stuck in their hangars while the misnamed International Space Station limps along with a skeleton crew.
As Russia once did, China has a strong technical advantage. It already owns a chunk of the commercial space-launch business. But India has a decent shot at victory as well. It doesn’t have China’s manufacturing know-how, but it’s rapidly becoming the world’s software back office.
Who will become top dog in South Asia? That’s an open question, and there aren’t many good ways to answer short of a useless massacre. A space race offers a good solution. It’s a symbolic tournament that tests competing political and economic systems to their limit.
A decade after the end of the Cold War, good old-fashioned space programs still matter. Not for exploration’s sake, but to settle new cold wars. If you doubt it, imagine this scenario: It’s 2029, and a lunar mission lands at Tranquillity Base. A crew of heroic young Indians – or Chinese – quietly folds and puts away America’s 60-year-old flag. If the world saw that on television, wouldn’t the gesture be worth tens of billions of rupees or yuan? Of course it would.
Revisiting Tranquility Base would be something else.