China's first moon rover, Chang'e 3

China's first moon rover rolls out from its stationary lander after touching down on the moon December 14, 2013. Credit: Xinhua/Li Xin

China cemented its reputation as the fastest rising star on the space scene this weekend by landing a rover on the moon—a challenging feat pulled off by only two nations before: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. "This is a very big deal indeed," says lunar scientist Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. "Landing on the moon is not something easily attained—it requires precision maneuvering, tracking, computation and engineering. It is a delicate task and the Chinese success reflects a mature, evolving and capable program."

The Chang'e 3 mission touched down on the moon Saturday (December 14) after launching December 1 on a Chinese rocket. The lander included a four-legged stationary probe and a six-wheeled robotic rover that, with mast deployed, stands about 1.5 meters tall. The spacecraft is the first man-made object to land on the moon in 37 years, and coincidentally touched down exactly 41 years after the last humans departed the lunar surface. Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt launched off the moon to begin their return trip on December 14, 1972, space history expert Robert Pearlman points out at

The Chang'e 3 landing is "no small achievement," says Roger Launius, associate director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "There is a measure of pride at home and prestige abroad that accrues to the Chinese space program." At the same time, he adds, China is replicating an achievement the U.S. and the Soviet Union mastered decades ago, and one that private teams, some of which are made up of undergraduate and graduate students, are aiming to match in the near future for the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition. "Some people who might be concerned that the Chinese are demonstrating these capabilities, and who are running around with their hair on fire—I'm not sure that's appropriate."

Those in a tizzy about China's growing space prowess might include the members of Congress, led by Congressman Frank Wolf (R–Va.), who passed a law in 2011 that explicitly forbids NASA from cooperating with China on any space activities. Wolf has called China "fundamentally evil," and has said the law is necessary to prevent China from stealing NASA technologies, which it might use for military purposes. And some in the space industry fear that China's rise will eclipse U.S. leadership in space and cost American companies dollars. Commercial space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, whose Bigelow Aerospace company is building inflatable space habitats, has said China is likely to claim ownership of the moon if other nations do not step up to challenge them.

China's latest achievement may also sting for some in the U.S. as it comes on the heels of NASA retrenchment in planetary science and exploration. NASA's budget has been battered by sequestration and other federal funding cuts, and the reductions are hitting the planetary science program hardest. The space agency may soon be forced to choose between prematurely shutting down its Cassini orbiter program at Saturn or its Mars rover Curiosity mission.

Yet space does not have to be a zero-sum game, and some experts advocate for greater U.S.–Chinese cooperation at a time when China appears to have more money to spend than NASA does. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden himself has protested the law prohibiting him from working with the Chinese, and has advocated increased collaboration. "We're the only agency of the federal government that does not have bilateral relations with China," Bolden complained to the House Committee on Appropriations in March.

Ultimately, both friends and foes of the Chinese space program will be watching eagerly for the next move from a space agency that is clearly on the rise. China has said it eventually aims to land astronauts on the moon—a prospect that is "at least an order of magnitude more difficult" than landing a rover there, Launius says, largely because of the need to supply life support and return the crew home again. China is also building a space station in Earth orbit on which it hopes to post people continuously. So far, two teams of Chinese space flyers have docked with a prototype module in orbit called Tiangong 1 for short stays. With China's impressive track record lately, not much seems to be beyond the nation's scope down the line.