Eric Berger at Ars Technica took the occasion of the launch of China’s Long March 7 rocket to posit a nightmare scenario for American Space policy planners. What if China were to steal away the United States’ status as the leader in space exploration by aiming to the Moon instead of Mars. The Chinese have announced that they would like to build a space station in low Earth orbit in the 2020s followed by landing astronauts on the moon starting about 2030. Meanwhile, NASA is still struggling to embark on its Journey to Mars without adequate funding and without a firm plan of how to get to the Red Planet.

America’s traditional space partners would much rather go back to the Moon instead of Mars in the near term.

The moon is closer, both in time and distance. When President Barack Obama canceled the Constellation space exploration program that would have landed people on the moon by the end of the current decade, he pulled the rug out from under a number of countries that had been eager to become partners in such an effort.

The idea is that the European Space Agency, Russia, and a number of other entities might prefer to join in a Chinese lunar effort that had a chance of succeeding rather than the Journey to Mars that is, at best, uncertain. The Mars program might even get canceled by a future president or Congress if they judge it to be too expensive or if problems begin to push the first Mars voyage further into the future. With the end of the International Space Station slated for 2024, America could become Earthbound while the rest of the world flies off to the moon.

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Of course, the next president could forestall this development by redirecting NASA back to the moon, inviting the private sector and international partners to join in. The scientific community, as well as Congress, has started to warm to the idea as the Obama administration enters its final months. Then the United States can regain its position as the undisputed leader in space exploration, with the world following it and not China back to the moon.