Chinese state media has announced that china has begun to develop a spacecraft that will take as many as six astronauts to the moon. While China has an extensive robotic lunar exploration program and has hinted at plans to land people on the lunar surface, the announcement is the first time it has been specific as to spacecraft development. The Chinese offered no time frame, but clearly, the announcement is in response to news of both NASA and commercial companies aiming for a return to the moon.

China has already placed two spacecraft in lunar orbit and landed another on the lunar surface in December 2013.

The next lunar mission, the Chang’e 5, will land on the moon toward the end of 2017 and is expected to return a rock and soil sample. Another lunar landing mission is planned to land on the far side of the moon, the first ever to have done so.

China’s crewed space program is focused on building a space station. However, the country has touted the moon as key to the economic development of the most populous nation on Earth. The Chinese have mentioned mining helium three from the moon to provide fuel for clean burning fusion power plants. Access to lunar water would position China as a major space power, enabling deep space missions to Mars and beyond by using the moon as a refueling stop.

China’s announcement along with interest expressed by the Trump administration and commercial companies such as SpaceX in the moon sets up the possibility of an expanded space race on more of an international basis, similar to the Apollo race to the moon in the 1960s.

Indeed if China lands on the moon before the United States it will acquire incalculable national prestige, If it is the first to develop the moon economically, it will be in the position to supplant the United States as the dominant superpower on Earth, with all that implies.

The prospect of a new space race ought to inject vigor into various efforts to return to the moon. The stakes could be the determination of who owns the future.