Destination moon: China's Long March 3B rocket carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe blasts off from Sichuan province last month. Photo: AP
Towards the end of last year, a six-year-old aspiring astronaut from Colorado offered up the contents of his piggy bank to help support the chronically underfunded NASA. After learning that the US government body that once put a man on the moon was now cutting funding for its planetary science division, Connor Johnson pledged $US10.41 to help keep the NASA department in business.
Barely a month later, China sent the Chang'e-3 mission, carrying the unmanned Jade Rabbit lander to the moon, raising the prospect that it will be China's taikonauts rather than US astronauts exploring space in the future. The mission put China in the select club of only two other nations – the US and Russia – to have landed moon rovers successfully.
At the time, China's space agency crowed that the successful mission showed "the new glory of China to scale the peaks in world science and technology areas".
China's first moon rover: Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, moves onto the lunar surface in this still image taken from video provided by China Central Television. Photo: Reuters
But China is not just funding an unmanned moon lander and an eventual manned mission. It plans to have the Tiangong-3 or Heavenly Palace space station orbiting Earth by 2023 – just about the time funding for the US-backed International Space Station is scheduled to run out.
And China is by no means alone in its aspirations. In November India launched its Mangalyaan Mars orbiter which will explore the red planet's surface, mineralogy and atmosphere while testing deep space communication.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye recently announced plans to boost the share of government funding for science research and development. She pulled forward a deadline for a moon rover launch from 2025 to 2020 and flagged plans to create a new satellite launcher.
Public appeal: Visitors at a trade fair take pictures of a prototype model of a lunar rover in Shanghai in November. Photo: Reuters
Japan, too, has sent a space craft to an asteroid and recently tested a "space cannon" to be used for mining on an asteroid this year.
The surge of Asian powers investing in space exploration has reshaped the nature of the pursuit – once the sole province of the US and the Soviet Union.
The urgency around Asia's space exploration can partially be explained by the economic growth in region.
"A lot of nations in Asia have a shorter history of industrialisation than the US or Europe and have advanced very rapidly," says Sydney-based space analyst Dr Morris Jones. "They are very keen to show power they have not had at their disposal for so long." While Asian countries are keen to show "that they're not peasant economies any more", there are scientific and technological justifications for space programs, too.
Space programs create spin-off technology that can aid mining, resource-processing, communications and imaging, which are useful for energy-hungry countries in natural disaster-prone areas – countries such as China, India and Japan. There is also nothing like a project of national significance to give focus to a country's scientific programs.
"If you don't engage the scientific community constructively, and try to look for newer horizons, you will never able to develop science and technology," says Ajey Lele, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. Referring to India's Mangalyaan orbiter, he says: "It is not only the 'Mars moment' will give you results; the entire process of learning will give you a certain amount of development."
Another dividend of advanced rocketry and space technology is their military applications. In this way, competition in space reflects the political tensions between Asian countries.
"Space is a profoundly 'dual use' domain, meaning that many systems have civil and military uses and it's really hard to separate the two," says Canberra-based Brett Biddington, who has advised the Australian government on space programs.
That factor allows nations to use space missions "as a cover to develop and test systems that have direct military application – hiding in the open, so to speak".
The world got a reminder of the dual-use nature of a space technology in December 2012 when North Korea briefly put a satellite in orbit with a rocket that looked suspiciously like a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Advances in satellites can make missile technology more accurate – another example of dual-use technology.
While North Korea is arguably the most extreme example, there are numerous areas of tensions in Asia. Among the most vexing is the China's feud with Japan over the islands in the East China Sea known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. The dispute flared again with China's imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone over waters that include the islands in December. The South China Sea is another hotspot.
"I do not believe the nations of Asia would be investing so heavily in space flight without so much regional tension," Jones says.
And unlike during the waning days of the Cold War when space co-operation between the US and Soviet Union on the Apollo–Soyuz missions foreshadowed a thaw in countries' relations, Asian nations do not typically co-operate with each other on space exploration.
Dr Clay Moltz, of the Naval Postgraduate School in the US, who wrote the book Asia's Space Race, said: "At present, Asian military space programs remain highly secretive and countries have had few interactions aimed at reducing military tensions."
This competitive fear seems most pronounced "between China and India, but even in Japan", Moltz says. "South Korea is concerned about North Korea's intentions in space."
Even outside of the region there is distrust. Between the US and China there is no co-operation on space. In 2011, a budget bill barred NASA from co-operation with China's space program because of concerns of technology theft and China's human rights.
Yet the chill between the US and China – while China races ahead with its space program – has Americans wondering if the nation that took "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" can continue to lead in space.
Despite NASA's woes, there is no shortage of private sector space development in the US. Elon Musk's SpaceX has successfully tested a reusable rocket that can take off and land in one piece, just like the space craft imagined in the 1950s movies.
The US still leads the world in most areas of space programs, including planetary exploration, navigation and research.
NASA's priorities, however, remain unclear. In recent years the agency has shifted between plans for a manned Mars mission to a return to the moon to a visit to an asteroid. All the while, its budget remains a target for cost-cutting.
But the US is certainly watching China's success. Soon after China landed the Jade Rabbit, NASA tweeted a congratulations to China. Within days, editorials appeared in the US media lamenting the loss of momentum for the US space program.
As Houston-based space writer Mark Whittington wrote in USA Today, China was on track to put a man on the moon by 2020. "If and when that happens and if Americans are not on the moon to greet them, China becomes the world's space exploration leader and all that implies."
For Connor Johnson of Colorado, it would mean choosing another career to aspire to.
with Philip Wen and Ben Doherty