Unexceptional: China becomes the third country to land a spacecraft on the moon in preparation for a manned visit. Meanwhile, U.S. astronauts have to ride Russian spacecraft to fix toilets on the International Space Station.

Tourists visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where one of America's retired space shuttles now resides, were no doubt able to see news reports of the landing of China's first lunar vehicle, a solar-powered rover, on the surface of the moon.

The landing of the rover 37 years after the last such mission by the Soviet Luna 24 sample-return voyage in 1976 makes China just the third nation to accomplish such a feat, joining the U.S. and Russia. Clearly, Beijing intends to be a player in space, just as on the global scene. On both scores, the Obama administration seems intent on making the U.S. a spectator.

The Chang'e 3 spacecraft and its lunar rover, sent aboard a Long March 3B rocket launched on Dec. 2 from Southwest China, is the latest triumph of an ambitious military-backed space program. Its goals include a manned orbiting space station and landing Chinese astronauts on the moon, possibly to plant their flag next to the U.S. flag left there in 1969. The rover itself is called Yutu or Jade Rabbit after the pet of Chang'e, Chinese mythology's goddess of the moon.

On Oct. 15, 2003, China's first manned spaceflight sent astronaut Yang Liwei on a 21-hour mission. An 8.5-ton space station module orbited in September 2011 was launched into space aboard a Long March 2F rocket. It was to be the prototype for a planned 60-ton Chinese space laboratory to be in orbit by 2020.



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