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Why So Many Countries Have Their Sights Set On Visiting The Moon


China, India, smaller nations like Israel and Korea are all pursuing lunar ambitions. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, so NPR's Geoff Brumfiel decided to find out why so many countries have their sights on the moon.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: On December 14, 1972, humans left the moon.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one - ignition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're on our way, Houston.

BRUMFIEL: That was the last Apollo mission - Apollo 17 - taking off from the lunar surface. Emily Lakdawalla is with the Planetary Society, which promotes space exploration. She says after that, the world kind of lost interest in the moon.

EMILY LAKDAWALLA: There was a dry patch. Between the time that the Apollo and Soviet Luna missions ended, there were only a couple of missions.

BRUMFIEL: The moon never went anywhere, though. It was always up there, and now fickle humans have gotten interested again.

LAKDAWALLA: It just seems like things kind of go in almost, like, fashionable waves.

BRUMFIEL: Satellites from several countries began showing up in the early 2000s. And then in 2013...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Ignition now starts. And we have our liftoff.

BRUMFIEL: The China National Space Administration launched Chang'e-3. It was the first probe to actually land on the moon in nearly 40 years. Joan Johnson-Freese studies China's space program at the U.S. Naval War College. She says right from the start, the Chinese have sought to explore space differently than the U.S. did during Apollo.

JOAN JOHNSON-FREESE: They saw that we had an attitude of landing on the moon and, sadly, kind of looking around and saying, been there, done that, got the belt buckle. And we went home, so they decided that they were going to develop their lunar program in a very different way.

BRUMFIEL: The Chinese have a step-by-step approach. Each step is ambitious but not too expensive and not too hard. Here's Wu Weiren, the chief designer of China's Lunar Exploration Program, speaking earlier this year on state television.


WEIREN WU: (Through interpreter) Unlike the space competition during the '60s and '70s, the funding and manpower investment of China's space exploration has been rational, restrained and scientific.

BRUMFIEL: Wu was speaking at the landing of China's latest probe, Chung'e-4. It touched down on the far side of the moon - the first time any nation has landed there. Bob Wimmer is a scientist at the University of Kiel in Germany, who built a radiation detector for Chung'e-4. He says the speed at which the Chinese work is astonishing.

BOB WIMMER: European missions are extremely slow, and Americans are about twice as fast. And the Chinese are another factor of two to five faster than the Americans.

BRUMFIEL: From the moment he got funding to the moment his experiment launched was just over a year, which is nothing for a space mission.

WIMMER: It's just incredibly intense.

BRUMFIEL: China isn't the only one with eyes on the moon. India launched its first lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, in 2008.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You can see the vehicle floating into the - high into the sky majestically.

BRUMFIEL: Its second mission, which includes a lunar lander, is set to launch next week. Sriram Bhiravarasu is a researcher at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. He says the launch of Chandrayaan-1 turbocharged Indian science.

SRIRAM BHIRAVARASU: The enthusiasm was super-high. It just ignited a spark in the Indian researchers. I was part of them. I started my Ph.D. right after Chandrayaan-1 was launched.

BRUMFIEL: As India's research community gets going, he says the nation wants to go to other destinations, too.

BHIRAVARASU: India is planning missions for Venus exploration and, ultimately, Mars in the coming years.

BRUMFIEL: Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College says just like during the Cold War, a lot of this new enthusiasm for space is very much grounded in Earthly politics. India and China are competing for geopolitical points in Asia, and they hope their space programs will make them look strong.

JOHNSON-FREESE: Space has always signified technological advancement, so both India and China are very anxious to show others in the region that they are the country that they should want to work with.

BRUMFIEL: It's no coincidence that this new moon race is happening in a period of heightened global nationalism, agrees Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society.

LAKDAWALLA: Every country is going to be saying, look at the great things that we can do in space. It's kind of like performance at the Olympics, you know, where it's - you kind of beat your drum but in a positive way.

BRUMFIEL: And, she says, it's been decades since anyone has visited the lunar surface. There's still a lot more for humans everywhere to discover.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.


Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.