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Will China land humans on the Moon before America returns?
It would seem so based on a new report in the People’s Daily- the official paper of the Communist Party of China – as well as the express science goals following on the heels of the enormous breakthrough for Chinese technology demonstrated by the history making Chang’e-3 Mission.
The People’s Daily reports that “Chinese aerospace researchers are working on setting up a lunar base,” based on a recent speech by Zhang Yuhua, deputy general director and deputy general designer of the Chang’e-3 probe system.
No humans have set foot on the moon’s surface since the last US lunar landing mission when Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt departed 41 years ago on Dec. 14, 1972.
For context, the landing gear span of Chang’e-3 is approximately 4.7 meters vs. 9.07 meters for NASA’s Apollo Lunar Module (LM).
Right now China is actively at work on the critical technology required to conduct a manned landing on the Moon, perhaps by the mid-2020’s or later, and scoping out what it would accomplish.
“In addition to manned lunar landing technology, we are also working on the construction of a lunar base, which will be used for new energy development and living space expansion,” said Zhang at a speech at the Shanghai Science Communication Forum. Her speech dealt with what’s next in China’s lunar exploration program.
China’s Yutu lunar rover, deployed by the Chang’e-3 lander, is equipped with a suite of science instruments and a ground penetrating radar aimed at surveying the moon’s geological structure and composition to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by potential future Chinese astronauts.
But the Chinese government hasn’t yet made a firm final decision on sending people to the Moon’s surface.
“The manned lunar landing has not yet secured approval from the national level authorities, but the research and development work is going on,” said Zhang.
Meanwhile the US has absolutely no active plans for a manned lunar landing any time soon.
President Obama cancelled NASA’s manned Constellation “Return to the Moon” program shortly after he assumed office.
And during the 2012 US Presidential campaign, the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously declared “You’re fired” to anyone who would propose a US manned lunar base.
All that remains of Constellation is the Orion crew module – which was expressly designed to send US astronauts to the Moon and other deep space destinations such as Asteroids and Mars.
NASA hopes to launch a manned Orion capsule atop the new SLS booster on a flight to circle the moon as part of its first crewed mission around 2021 – depending on the budget.
The first Orion capsule will launch on an unmanned Earth orbiting test flight dubbed EFT-1 in mid-September 2014.
However, given the near total lack of reaction from the US political establishment to China’s extremely impressive Chang’e-3 feat and the continuing slashes to NASA’s budget, the outlook for a change in official US Moon policy is certainly not promising.
China and its political leadership – in stark contrast – are clearly thinking long term and has some very practical goals for the proposed lunar base.
“After the future establishment of the lunar base, mankind will conduct energy reconnaissance on the moon, set up industrial and agricultural production bases, make use of the vacuum environment to produce medicines,” Zhang explained according to the People’s Daily.
“I believe that in 100 years, humans will actually be able to live on another planet,” said Zhang.
China also seems interested in international cooperation based on another recent story in the People Daily.
“We are willing to cooperate with all the countries in the world, including the United States and developing countries,” said Xu Dazhe, the new chief of China’s space industry and newly promoted to head the China National Space Administration.
Xu made his remarks at the International Space Exploration Forum held at the US State Department.
However, since 2011, NASA has been banned by official US law from cooperating with China on space projects.
China is wisely taking a step by step approach in its Lunar Exploration programs leading up to the potential manned lunar landing.
With China’s lunar landing architecture now proven by the outstanding success of Chang’e-3, a production line can and has already been set up that will include upgrades potentially leading to the manned mission.
The already approved Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission is due to liftoff in 2017 and retrieve up to 2 kilograms of pristine rocks and soil from the Moon.
After the completion of the Chang’e-5 mission, the lunar exploration program and the manned space program will be combined to realize a manned lunar landing, Zhang explained according to the People’s Daily.
Meanwhile China is forging ahead with their manned space program. And no one should doubt their resolve.
In 2013 they launched a three person crew to China’s Tiangong-1 space station, reaping valuable technological experience pertinent to manned spaceflight including lunar missions.
By contrast, the US has been forced to rely 100% on the Russian’s to launch American astronauts to the ISS since the forced shutdown of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters in 2011.
China is only the 3rd country in the world to successfully soft land a spacecraft on Earth’s nearest neighbor after the United States and the Soviet Union.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Chang’e-3, Orbital Sciences, SpaceX, commercial space, LADEE, Mars and more news.