IT was not a Sputnik moment. At least not yet.
But China's quiet announcement this month that it plans to put a man on the moon by 2010 and then mine the rich lunar minerals by 2015 could eventually provoke a new space race.
Would Americans just watch as China plants its gold-star red flag on the moon and creates a permanent lunar base?
Probably not. National pride would likely drive the US to speed up its plans to colonize other worlds. And the Pentagon, which refers to space as the "ultimate high ground," couldn't stand to see China claim galactic supremacy.
But wait. Stop the countdown. This isn't Star Trek. Shouldn't the colonization of space be shared by all mankind? That was the idea behind the orbiting international space station (not to mention treaties on using Antarctica and the oceans). Why not in harvesting the moon? Or even in peopling Mars?
Alas, China has more earth-bound reasons for keeping its go-it-alone space program. Like the US in the 1960s, a moon base for China would be a great leap forward in national security, scientific progress, economic spin-offs, and national unity (behind the Communist Party, of course).
And recent evidence of water-ice trapped in the moon (as well as on Mars) will make it easier to sustain human life there and not share the work with other nations or the mineral resources or the glory.
The moon, with its low gravity, could be a viable launching pad for galactic travel. Lunar oxygen, embedded in rock, could help make rocket fuel for long journeys, while an unearthly supply of helium-3 could fuel fusion reactors. And various minerals can be used for building structures.
China still has a long march before it can shoot for the moon. While it has put 62 payloads into orbit since 1970, it has yet to launch a Chinese taikonaut.
Last year, however, it sent up a dog, a monkey, a rabbit, and snails on its Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) rocket. In March, it put a mannequin on board a flight. And over the past decade, it has trained 12 "right stuff" astronauts, who will soon be ready to put a Chinese footprint on the moon.
Someday, however, the idea of launching earthly jingoism into space for the sake of planetary imperialism will fade as more humans see Earth as their own fragile ball of well-tended stardust in an endless universe.
In the meantime, the US and China should embrace a 1979 UN "Moon Treaty" that proclaims that the moon and its resources are the common heritage of mankind. And the US can offer to share its advanced space technology with China in exchange for a joint venture in extraterrestrial living.
Russia and the US learned they can share their space-age covered wagons while crossing into the heavenly frontier. Now it's time for China and the US to set aside pride and put all humanity first.