China plans to land astronauts on the moon before 2030, in what would be another advance in what’s increasingly seen as a new space race pitting the Asian autocracy against the United States and its democratic allies.
The U.S. aims to put astronauts back on the lunar surface by the end of 2025.
Deputy Director of the Chinese Manned Space Agency Lin Xiqiang confirmed China’s goal at a news conference Monday but gave no specific date.
China is first preparing for a “short stay on the lunar surface and human-robotic joint exploration,” Lin said.
“We have a complete near-Earth human space station and human round-trip transportation system,” complemented by a process for selecting, training and supporting new astronauts, he said. A schedule of two crewed missions a year is “sufficient for carrying out our objectives,” Lin said.
China’s space agency also introduced the new crew heading to its orbiting space station in a launch scheduled for Tuesday and said the station will be expanded. The Tiangong space station was said to have been finished in November when the third section was added.
The fourth module will be added “at an appropriate time to advance support for scientific experiments and provide the crew with improved working and living conditions,” Lin said.
The trio being launched aboard the Shenzhou 16 craft will overlap briefly with the three astronauts who have lived on the station for the previous six months conducting experiments and assembling equipment inside and outside the vehicle.
The fresh crew includes a civilian for the first time. All previous crew members have been in the People’s Liberation Army, the military wing of the country’s ruling Communist Party.
Gui Haichao, a professor at Beijing’s top aerospace research institute, will join mission commander Jing Haipeng and spacecraft engineer Zhu Yangzhu as the payload expert.
Speaking to media at the launch site outside the northwestern city of Jiuquan, Jing said the mission marked “a new stage of application and development,” in China’s space program.
“We firmly believe that the spring of China’s space science has arrived, and we have the determination, confidence, and ability to resolutely complete the mission,” said Jing, a major general who has made three previous space flights.
China’s first manned space mission in 2003 made it the third country after the former Soviet Union and the U.S. to put a person into space.
China built its own space station after it was excluded from the International Space Station, largely due to U.S. objections over the Chinese space programs’ intimate ties to the PLA.
Space is increasingly seen as a new area of competition between China and the United States — the world’s two largest economies and rivals for diplomatic and military influence. The astronauts NASA sends to the moon by the end of 2025 will aim for the south pole where permanently shadowed craters are believed to be packed with frozen water.
Plans for permanent crewed bases on the moon are also being considered by both countries, raising questions about rights and interests on the lunar surface. U.S. law tightly restricts cooperation between the two countries’ space programs and while China says it welcomes foreign collaborations, those have thus far been limited to scientific research.
In addition to their lunar programs, the U.S. and China have also landed rovers on Mars and Beijing plans to follow the U.S. in landing a spacecraft on an asteroid.
Other countries and organizations ranging from the India and the United Arab Emirates to Israel and the European Union are also planning lunar missions.
The U.S. sent six crewed missions to the moon between 1969 and 1972, three of which involved the use of a drivable lunar rover that China says it is now developing with tenders in the private sector.
While America currently operates more spaceports and has a far wider network of international and commercial partners than China, the Chinese program has proceeded in a steady and cautious manner reflecting the county’s vast increase in economic power and global influence since the 1980s.