BEIJING — China’s burgeoning space program plans to place astronauts on the moon before 2030 and expand the country’s orbiting space station, officials said Monday.
Monday’s announcement comes amid against the background of a rivalry with the U.S. for reaching new milestones in outer space, reflecting their competition for influence on global events.
That has conjured up memories of the space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, although American spending, supply chains and capabilities are believed to give it a significant edge over China, at least for the present.
The U.S. aims to put astronauts back on the lunar surface by the end of 2025 as part of a renewed commitment to crewed missions, aided by private sector players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin.
The deputy director of China’s space agency confirmed the twin objectives at a news conference but gave no specific dates.
The space agency introduced the three astronauts that will be heading to China’s orbiting station on Tuesday morning. They’ll replace a crew that’s been on the orbiting station for six months.
China is first preparing for a “short stay on the lunar surface and human-robotic joint exploration,” Deputy Director of the Chinese Manned Space Agency Lin Xiqiang told reporters at the rare briefing by the military-run program.
“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. Lin stated that a schedule consisting of two crewed space missions per year was “enough to achieve our goals”.
The Tiangong station, which was completed in November with the addition of a third section, was said to be finished.
A fourth module will be launched “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 Haiichao will be the mission’s payload expert, joining Jing Haipeng, the commander of Jing Haipeng, and Zhu Yangzhu, an engineer at Beijing’s leading aerospace research institute.
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 USSR 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 — one a highly centralized, one party state, the other a democracy where the partisan divide largely evaporates over the issues of relations with China and space exploration.
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. The U.S. space law restricts the cooperation of both countries, and although China welcomes international collaborations they have so far only been restricted to scientific research.
Speaking Monday afternoon in Jiuquan, the technology director of the Chinese crewed space flight agency, Li Yingliang, said China hoped for more international collaboration, including with the U.S.
“Our country’s consistent stance is that as long as the goal is to utilize space for peaceful purposes, we are willing to cooperate and communicate with any country or aerospace organization,” Li said.
“Personally, I regret that the U.S. Congress has relevant motions banning cooperation in aerospace between the U.S. and China. I very much regret that personally,” he said.
In conjunction with their lunar missions, both the U.S.A. and China also have rovers on Mars. Beijing is planning to land a spacecraft in the same manner as the U.S. on an asteroid.
Other countries, including the United Arab Emirates and India, as well as the European Union and Israel are planning to launch 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.
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