The strategic rivals are Moon-struck. Last October — exactly one year before India’s Chandrayaan-I lift-off — China launched its first unmanned flight to orbit the Moon. It was far costlier than India’s mission, but China said it spends roughly the same amount to build a two-km-long subway in Beijing.
Both India and China have similar lunar exploration goals. Both plan to land Moon rovers in the next decade. China has plans to land a man on the Moon around the 2020s, while the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) wants to send two Indians to the Moon by 2015. But China has a head start on this highway.
Last month, a fighter pilot in a homemade spacesuit became the first Chinese to walk in space. The space-walk signaled that the Middle Kingdom — which shocked the world by smashing a satellite in space last year — was on its journey to building a space laboratory and a station up there.
“The Chinese people have dreamt for 1,000 years of flying to the moon,” Premier Wen Jiabao had said after the launch of China’s first unmanned lunar orbiter, Chang’e-1. The orbiter is named after a Chinese Moon goddess.
Next year, China plans to launch its second lunar mission Chang’e-2 to orbit 100 km above the Moon’s surface. A joint probe to Mars with Russia has been planned around this time in 2009.
China’s Moon dream rocketed ahead as Asian space race intensified in this decade. In 2003, China became the first Asian country and only the third after the US and the former Soviet Union, to send an astronaut into space. China is now training a younger set of 30-year-old astronauts.
In March, Ye Peijian, chief designer of Chang’e-1, said China plans to land a probe on the Moon in 2013, and a recoverable moon rover to bring home soil samples by 2017.
Meanwhile, Chang’e-1 beams lunar photographs, maps the chemical composition of the lunar surface and measures the radiation emitted from the moon, to understand its origin. It’s been a long march for the country that first sent mice into space in 1964, soon after the birth of India's space programme.