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China is on path to 'militarization of space'

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Compared with the American and Soviet mad dashes into space in the late 1950s and '60s, Asia is taking its time – running a marathon, not a sprint. "All of these countries witnessed the cold war, and what led to the destruction of the USSR," says Ajey Lele, an expert on Asian space programs at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi, referring to the military and space spending that helped hasten the decline of the Soviet regime. "They understand the value of money and investment, and they are going as per the pace which they can go." But he acknowledged China's edge over India. "They started earlier, and they're ahead of us at this time," he says.

India put the Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft into lunar orbit in 2008, a mission with a NASA payload that helped confirm the presence of water on the moon. It plans a moon landing in a few years' time, and a manned mission as early as 2020 – roughly the same timetable as China.

Japan is also mulling a moonshot, and has branched out into other space exploration, such as the recent Hayabusa mission to an asteroid. Its last lunar orbiter shared the moon with China's first in 2007.

Both Japan's and India's recent missions have been plagued by glitches and technical problems, however, while China's have gone relatively smoothly.

Mr. Lele said the most significant aspect of the Chang'e 2 mission was the attempt at a 9.5-mile-high orbit, a difficult feat. India's own lunar orbiter descended to about 60 miles in 2008, he said, but was forced to return to a more stable, 125-mile-high orbit.

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