There used to be Americans up there.

The thought came to me on a dark, predawn morning when I looked out the cold window at the bright and shining moon.

The Chinese have landed.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade," President John F. Kennedy said in 1962 when he launched the Apollo moon program, "and do other things, not because they are easy, because they are hard." He called it "the greatest and most complex exploration in man's history." And so it was.

What happened? We used to "own" the moon. What happened to the Americans? Where did the American astronauts go?

Had we the leadership that the American people deserve, there would have been Americans on the moon welcoming the unmanned Chinese Chang'e 3 spacecraft when it landed the other day.

There would be American astronauts living, exploring and working on the moon, greeting the Chinese astronauts around when they finally do land on the moon, as expected, five of six years from now.

Twelve men have walked on the moon, all of them Americans. The first was Astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. The last was astronaut Eugene Cernan in December of 1972.

That was more than 40 years ago. Americans don't go to the moon anymore. No American, nor anyone else, has been back since. But the Chinese will soon be there.

Armstrong's historic landing was televised and lauded around the world as a major American triumph, which it undoubtedly was. It was a matter of great national pride, like winning World War II. Armstrong's words, as he stepped from the lander onto the surface of the moon, were historic. He said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Perhaps it was. Maybe it was not. No one knew back then that Americans landing on the moon represented the peak of American progress and leadership in the world. No one predicted that we would abandon the moon so soon after arriving.

Outside of the Cold War, and defeating the Soviet Union in the space race, the United States has not won much since then. The Russians never even landed a cosmonaut on the moon.

Everything else, especially in this administration, has not been about what we can do as a nation, but what we cannot do. An example of this is President Barack Obama's decision in 2010 canceling NASA's Constellation program that sought a permanent return to the moon by 2020.

With America out of the game, Obama's decision was nothing less than a clear signal to the Chinese that the United States would not compete with them in space, that America was out of the moon landing game.

The landing of the first Chinese spacecraft and rover on the surface of the moon -- which was practically ignored by the Obama administration -- is a solid sign that the Chinese are determined to surpass the United States in space.

In essence, the United States, without a peep, has turned over the moon, the most visible object from earth in the universe, to the Chinese. If nothing else, that decision flies in the face of the American sense of pride and accomplishment that gripped the nation when television pictures of astronauts planting the American flag on the moon were transmitted back to earth.

When pictures of the first Chinese astronaut landing on the moon are beamed back to earth in the near future, he will be replacing the faded American flag planted on the moon with a Chinese flag. And he probably will say something like: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for China."

And all across America we will be holding up two fingers and chanting: "We're No. 2. We're No. 2."

But there is more than pride and nationalism involved. Unlike the Americans, the Chinese are not going to the moon as tourists. They are planning to stay.

Not only is the moon a platform for exploration into outer space, it is also thought to be fertile for mining uranium, titanium and other minerals, including an energy source called helieum-3, which is rare on earth. If there is a way to make the mining of the moon pay, the Chinese will find it.

There are military, symbolic and psychological ramifications of a Chinese occupation of the moon as well, as the Chinese look down upon us from space. How many Americans want to look up at the moon and know the Chinese are there and we are not?

And why did we go to the moon in the first place, if only to abandon the place, leaving only footprints in the moon dust?

Peter Lucas' political column appears Tuesday and Friday. Email him at luke1825@aol.com.