In 1957, when the USSR launched Sputnik, it began a new era in the Cold War.  The Race to Space. Senator Lyndon Johnson worried the commies could rain nuclear bombs down on us from the high ground, making him the perfect guy to run NASA and because it was a military concern it got funded.  Only later it became a human exploration issue and much later became a science one.

Since then, The Race To X argument is conveniently trotted out for whatever new plan a special interest has to get some taxpayer funding.  Last year, Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu said American taxpayers had to spend billions subsidizing cheap solar panels or America would lose The Race to Build Cheap Solar Panels to the communists.  It was the 1950s all over again.

How can America win a low-end race against a communist country with a built-in peasant class and no environmental controls?  Apple had zero interest in manufacturing its products in the United States, Chairman Steve Jobs was blunt to the point of being smug in declaring that those jobs were never going to be in America - the hidden subtext was that, if the jobs were in China, Apple could speak out about human rights, child labor and environmental issues yet do nothing. If those issues happened in America it couldn't be ignored but no one will issue a boycott over Chinese labor because they want an iPad for 600 bucks a lot more than they want safe working conditions for people in another country. Solar power is no different.  If you want panels built domestically, they can't be cheap and that means people will not buy them without huge subsidies. It may be better to let the Chinese make those just like they make iPads.

So it also may be with future space exploration.  Is this a 'race' and if so, do we need to win it?  Once a year, someone with a Big Idea trots out the claim that if we don't invest billions in the Big Idea, America will "fall behind".  If you are reading this and chuckle when the military says that to justify a rail gun, you can imagine how people outside government science feel about giant projects like the LHC or the James Webb Telescope or a colony on the Moon. It's cool and maybe it should be sold that way - but it shouldn't be sold as essential for science.  By this time next year, European politicians in a recessionary economy are going to talk to people running the LHC and find out there is no Higgs boson.  They will say, "You told us to build this because we would find this God Particle thing.  Now you say it does not exist?" and the reply will be "In science, what we do not learn is important too" and then politicians will shake their heads and remind scientists not having a God Particle for $12 billion is not superior to not having one for nothing.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is being a good advocate for space travel when he insists we are in a race with the Chinese to have a colony on the Moon but if the only politician who shares your belief is Newt Gingrich, is that a solid case? Ross Pomery in RealClearScience thinks so, writing
No, the real reason why America should join in the upcoming space race is because we can't afford not to. Americans don't sit on the sidelines; we lead. We already do this militarily, so why shouldn't we do it in space?

Indeed, the United States has an opportunity to turn the next space race into the most important example of international cooperation the world has ever seen.
Not very convincing from either of them if your interest is actual science and not science funding advocacy or a hope for world peace.  It is instead philosophical, maybe even nationalistic. Why can't the Chinese be an important example of cooperation instead of us?  We also were told we could not afford not to build the LHC but it turns out we absolutely could afford to not discover that the Higgs Boson does not exist.  It isn't like we won't add leadership and brains and even some money but why do we have to be the leader?  The most important example of international cooperation should be the UN but Pomery is right for forgetting that expensive, irrelevant boondoggle.  Being a leader and even hosting it in the US did nothing much for anyone and just left New York City with a bunch of unpaid parking tickets they can never collect on because of 'diplomatic immunity'.
Imagine what could be accomplished if the world's space superpowers pooled their resources to build an international space colony on the moon? The advancements for science and technology would surely be significant
This is the reason why the domestic space program has collapsed. Even politicians no longer regard it as a science endeavor - and they are right, it is a tough sell from a science perspective and looks like more of a job works program. We do far more science with unmanned missions than we ever accomplished with the Space Shuttle. Unmanned missions are cheaper and safer.  It really is a stretch to fairly attribute much in the way of science or technology at all to the space program - you have to get second order and try to give them credits for things like MRI. It's like claiming we should spend trillions of dollars on useless research because one time the government did not know what to do with the Internet for 25 years and a guy at CERN figured he might as well share some pictures with his friends.

I love races.  I grew up with the space program and I can name all seven Mercury astronauts without blinking. I watched a Moon launch and a Skylab and two shuttle launches in person. I can be as jingoistic as anyone about how great America is.  But if China wants to spend the money to put a colony on the Moon 'for all mankind' and 'world peace' why should we turn it into a Space Race?