The uptick in Chinese space activity has political ramifications as well, Lewis said, even on the purely civilian side of things. In the last space race, putting astronauts on the moon represented the pinnacle of space-based capability, catapulting the U.S. ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of international prestige.
With the U.S. space program now focused on abstract goals like a manned mission to Mars at some vague point in the future, China is making concrete plans to return humans to the moon at a time when U.S. astronauts rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for rides to the International Space Station.
"The Chinese are persistent and will probably get back on the moon before we do, so in round two of the space race, we come in second place," Lewis said. "When China lands on the moon and we aren't there, what's the world going to think?"
But the Chinese space program still remains several years away from doing so, and in the meantime, its increasing presence in space also creates room for cooperation if China and the U.S. can push past their mutual distrust on national security matters. While the military aspects of Chinese space ambitions need to be monitored and understood, Logsdon said, the best way to do that is to engage with the Chinese and their space program.
"We can get more done if countries in space work together," he said. "The days of one country being the dominant space power are behind us."
— By Clay Dillow, special to CNBC.com